By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
July 30, 2007 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said his rare and possibly unprecedented joint trip here with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sends a message that the United States has no intention of cutting long-term ties in the region. "I think that it is a statement, first of all, of the importance of this region in terms of U.S. vital interests and the importance we attach to reassuring our friends out here of our staying power," Gates told reporters traveling with him.
The two Cabinet members will meet tomorrow in Sharm el-Sheikh with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The council includes Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates and works to strengthen their cooperation in broad areas, including security. Jordan and Egypt will send representatives to the meeting, too.
Gates told reporters he has four goals for the conference. First and foremost, he said, is "to reaffirm that the Persian Gulf and the Middle East are an enduring vital interest to the United States and that we will continue to have a strong presence in the region, as we have for decades," he said.
The secretary said he also seeks "to intensify our dialog with friends on long-term regional political and security issues." Unlike his previous visits to the region, which centered heavily on Iraq, Gates said he expects a much broader dialog this time that will include Iran, al Qaeda, Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Syria, Lebanon, proliferation and other issues.
Gates also said he hopes "to explore new initiatives to strengthen and expand existing security relationships and opportunities for further cooperation among states in the region." He said he intends to see if there's an interest in pursuing dialog on ways to strengthen existing bilateral security relationships.
Finally, he said he wants to reassure regional countries that U.S. policies in Iraq "have had and will continue to have regional stability and security as a very high priority," he said.
A senior defense official speaking on background told reporters the talks are expected to focus heavily on Iraq and encouraging its neighbors to do more to support its new government.
"Instability in Iraq will negatively affect the stability of the region as a whole, and so it is in these countries' own interest to try to bring about stabilization of the political and security situation in Iraq," he said. "And that is a message we will be carrying."
Concerns about Iranian interference in Iraq, its nuclear programs and its ambitions in the region also are expected to weigh heavily in the discussions. There's "broad concern" about Iran, particularly now that two forces that previously countered its ambitions, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, are both gone, the official said.
"So I would be one to argue it is in your interest to strengthen the government in Baghdad and embrace it in the Arab would so that it is an obstacle to Iranian influence and not a bridge," the official said he will tell participants at the conference.
But the visit is not what the official called "a Johnny-one-note trip" that will be limited to Iraq and Iran. "We also are going to be talking quite straightforwardly about how we can enhance cooperation bilaterally and maybe even multilaterally in terms of defense capabilities," the official said.