EN ROUTE TO CAIRO (May 4, 2009) – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is en route to Egypt and Saudi Arabia for sessions aimed at reaffirming ties with the important regional powers that both have strong military-to-military relationships with the United States.
The visits “clearly are all about strengthening relationships with long-time friends,” Gates told reporters traveling aboard a military aircraft with him.
The secretary, who last visited both countries a year and a half ago, is expected to focus on regional security issues, including the Middle East peace process and operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The trip is Gates’ first overseas visit in almost five months, except for a brief NATO conference in Krakow, Poland, in February. “I felt that it was important to focus on the budget and the strategy relating to the budget,” he explained. “And I also thought it was important to stick around Washington and get to know my new colleagues and establish strong relationships with them, which I think I have been able to do.”
Now back on the road, Gates said, he’ll encourage both Egypt and Saudi Arabia to forge stronger diplomatic ties with Iraq. Recognizing suspicion “about how much influence Iran has in Baghdad,” Gates credited the Egyptians with taking “some serious steps forward to re-engage” with the Iraqi government.
“If the Arab world is concerned about Iranian influence, then the way to deal with that is to have more Arab influence in Baghdad – more ambassadors, more engagement with regional security arrangements that involve the Arab states,” he said. “So I think one way to allay their concerns if for them to reach out and be a counter-influence in Baghdad. I think that is very important.”
Gates said he’ll also offer assurances that any U.S. outreach to Iran “will not be at the expense of our long-term relationships with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states that have been our partners and our friends for decades.”
The United States will deal with Iran “in a sensible way, and in a way that hopefully increases the security of everybody in the region, not just us,” he said.
“I just think it is important to reassure our friends and allies in the region that while we are willing to reach out to the Iranians — as the president said, with an open hand – I think everybody in the administration from the president on down is pretty realistic and will be pretty tough-minded if we still encounter a closed fist,” Gates said.
During the first stop of his trip, in Cairo, Gates said, he plans to discuss Egypt’s role in the Middle East peace process.
“The Egyptians have played a huge role in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian problem in trying to be a go-between and help move that process forward,” he said. “The Egyptians have played a critical role in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for a long time.”
The U.S.-Egyptian bilateral military relationship will be another major agenda item. “We also undoubtedly will talk about smuggling in the Gaza and the programs we are working on together to try and limit that kind of smuggling,” Gates said.
A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers team in Egypt is testing advanced tunnel detection systems to be used to stem Palestinian weapons smuggling along Egypt’s border with the Gaza Strip. The team also will teach Egyptian security forces how to operate the system, purchased through the military sales program.
During the next leg of the trip, in Saudi Arabia, Gates is likely to discuss its possible role in helping Afghanistan’s democratically elected government reconcile with the Taliban. Gates said he’ll also encourage continued efforts to influence events in Pakistan.“Whatever they can do to help bring the Pakistanis together in a broader sense to deal with the challenge for the government in Islamabad obviously would be welcomed,” he said.
Gates said he expects the discussions to extend to the deposition of Yemeni detainees now at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. “The Saudis have perhaps the most successful repatriation [and] reeducation program of any country at this point,” he said. “So clearly there will be an interest in pursuing that with them.”
The secretary turned reminiscent as he anticipated returning to Egypt. He recalled the exact date of his first meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek – Aug. 4, 1990 – as the United States was preparing to send troops into Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Shield.
He also remembered his first visit to Egypt 30 years ago, accompanying then-President Jimmy Carter during the final stages of the Camp David peace talks. “So I always look forward to visiting Egypt and rekindling old friendships,” he said. “It is basically all about strengthening relationships.”
Similarly, Gates said he has made several return visits to Saudi Arabia. “It is good to go back and renew these relationships,” he said.