By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Dec. 13, 2008 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates opened the first session of the Manama Dialogue here today, pledging continued U.S. participation in the security of the Gulf and encouraging the Arab world to embrace Iraq and Afghanistan diplomatically and economically. This is the fifth annual such meeting of leaders from more than 25 countries including those from the Gulf, Middle East, NATO, and the European Union. The meetings serve as a forum on national and regional security issues and initiatives.
The meeting officially opened yesterday, but Gates delivered the first speech of the morning emphasizing that January's change in political administration in United States will not reflect on its efforts here.
"I can assure you that a change in administration does not alter our fundamental interests, especially in the Middle East," Gates said. "Throughout my career in government ... the security of the Gulf has been a central concern of every administration for which I have worked. That will not change, especially considering the great challenges we all face."
In his speech, Gates highlighted the remaining challenges in Iraq, but called the recent security forces agreement the "dawn of a new era in Iraq – where a sovereign, independent, and representative government has finally taken root." He said how large of a role that plays in the region is largely dependent on the diplomatic and economic efforts of its neighbors in the region.
"If ... you look closely at Iraq's economic and political potential -- about what it can offer the Middle East -- you will see that it is in everyone's strategic interest to support the new government and the people of Iraq in whatever way you can," Gates said.
Gates encouraged those in the region to restore diplomatic ties with Iraq by appointing ambassadors to the country and including Iraqi officials in regional forums for economic and security cooperation.
Also, Gates called on Iraq's neighbors to re-engage the country economically, forgiving Saddam-era debt and expanding trade which is critical to the long-term stability in country.
Gates said the Gulf states need to put more diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran to stop its funding and training of extremist groups, its meddling in the rebuilding of Iraq and pursuit of a nuclear program.
"The last thing this region – or the world – needs is a nuclear arms race in the Middle East," he said.
Helping rebuild Iraq will, in effect, help limit Iranian influence regionally and nationally, he said.
Gates also asked the Gulf nations to help more in the efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. Specifically, he asked them to consider helping fund the Afghan National Army. Afghan's national budget is now about $700 million annually, and it will take about $2 billion annually to fund the army once it expands to more than 130,000 in the next four years.
Also, he asked the leaders gathered here to consider sending security forces or civilian experts to the Afghanistan, and to help stop the financing of the Taliban through stronger counter-terrorism laws and by clamping down on regional drug trade.
Besides the efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gates said encouraged greater cooperation in the Gulf specifically in the areas of air and maritime security. The threats there transcend national borders such as piracy, weapons proliferation, terrorist networks harnessing new technologies, weapons proliferation; environmental degradation, and the emergence of deadly and contagious diseases that can spread more rapidly than ever before in human history.
"What these challenges have in common is that they simply cannot be overcome by one, or even two countries, no matter how powerful or wealthy. They require multiple nations acting with uncommon unity," he said.
Gates said this is particularly true of air defenses and maritime security which necessitates multi-national cooperation.
Gates called the past year's progress toward such defenses in the Middle East significant, and praised the efforts of the nations there that are buying or are considering a shared early warning system to help defend against air or missile attacks.
"These procurements demonstrate the [Gulf Cooperation Council's] commitment to regional security and interoperability with each other and the United States," he said.
Greater maritime security needs have been highlighted by the recent rash of piracy acts off the coast of Somalia and the Gulf of Aden, Gates said.
The secretary said patrolling the one million square miles of coastal waters is not enough. He called on the internationally community to work together to deter piracy. Companies and ships need to be more vigilant about staying in recommended traffic corridors and should consider increasing their security, he said. And, countries could develop standard practices against seaborne threats beyond just piracy, such as terrorism, narcotics trafficking, and smuggling.
"For so long, many of the problems in this part of the world have seemed intractable," Gates said. "I believe, however, that there are many reasons for optimism – from an Iraq that is fighting its way from the darkness of recent decades to the unprecedented cooperation between the nations of the Gulf as they – as we – face incredibly dangerous threats."