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News | April 7, 2009

Gates supports reaching out to Islamic world

By John J. Kruzel , American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON (April 8, 2009) – A comprehensive American outreach effort to the Islamic world will pay dividends, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Tuesday.

Gates, in an interview on the PBS “News Hour with Jim Lehrer,” acknowledged the U.S. government’s attempts to connect with Muslims while communicating its concern over violent extremism has been insufficient so far.

“I gave a speech last year in which I made the comment that how can it be that the nation that discovered public relations is being out-communicated by a guy in a cave?” he said. “The reality is I think we probably have not done as well as we should have in terms of reaching out to Muslims and making clear that what we’re concerned about our violent extremists.”

The defense secretary’s comments come on the heels of visits by President Barack Obama to the majority-Muslim countries of Iraq and Turkey.

“This isn’t a war against Islam, and I think that the president’s communicating this message,” Gates said. “I think the challenge for the rest of the government is to figure out how to do that on a more comprehensive and continuing basis.”

He added that such outreach efforts fall under the auspices of the State Department.

Discussing Obama’s surprise visit yesterday to Iraq, Gates said he thought the president was carrying a key message.

“I think his message to the Iraqis is almost certainly ‘Keep on doing what you’re doing, keep on resolving problems politically, keep on working at reconciliation. We are going to keep our side of the bargain in terms of the [status of forces] agreement, in terms of drawdowns of troops, and you have to step up to your responsibilities now, too,’” Gates said.

The secretary added that he hopes the president’s visit will prove successful in encouraging the Iraqi leadership in Baghdad to continue working together. He noted that violence overall in Iraq is at some of the lowest levels since 2003, despite al-Qaida attacks such as a car-bombing that reportedly occurred in a Shiite section of the Iraqi capital yesterday.

“The view of our commanders is that while there are some of these spectacular attacks, overall the level of violence continues to be quite low compared with particularly 2007 and the early part of 2008 – in fact, at levels not seen since 2003,” he said.

The defense secretary characterized such attacks as “a last gasp” by extremists to try to reverse gains made in Iraq. He added that such measures have proven unsuccessful in reversing progress there. “In fact, I think it’s quite impressive how resilient people have been in Baghdad and Iraq in general,” he said.

Gates added that Obama delivered another message to a particular demographic group in Iraq.

“I think his message to our troops is one of appreciation and gratitude for their dedication and their service,” he said. “I’m confident that he will come home impressed by the caliber of our men and women in uniform out there.”