WASHINGTON – The United States should not shirk its responsibilities as a global leader or withdraw from the fight against terrorists just because Americans are weary of the fight, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday.
Two days after President Bush vetoed legislation setting a deadline for a troop withdrawal from Iraq, Gates said there is no end in sight to the long war against violent extremists.
"Our country is troubled and divided by a long and difficult war in Iraq," Gates said to the Dallas Chamber of Commerce.
While acknowledging that weariness with the war is understandable, Gates added that, "we must not let that weariness cause us to withdraw from the world or diminish our ability to deal with the threats and challenges of tomorrow. We simply cannot escape the responsibilities and burdens of global leadership; they will always follow us home."
Gates comments appeared to shrug off efforts by his top commander in the Middle East to shift away from references to the "long war." Adm. William Fallon, commander of U.S. Central Command, decided that the phrase sent the wrong message to allies in the Middle East who could interpret it as a long-term commitment by the U.S. to combat or occupation in Iraq.
Gates' and Fallon's predecessors, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. John Abizaid, had used the term regularly to describe the war on terror — a fight they said would be battled on many fronts and against a vast array of enemies.
On Thursday, Gates embraced that message, calling this a crucial time for the U.S. government and its allies.
"Violent extremist networks and ideologies will continue be a threat to the United States and our allies for many years. Regardless of the semantic debate, we are in for a long war," he said. "The ambition of these networks to acquire chemical, biological, and nuclear materials is real, as is their desire to launch more attacks on our country and our interests around the world."
Gates has said repeatedly that the bitter debate between Bush and the Democratically-led Congress over setting a timetable for withdrawal of troops from Iraq and benchmarks for progress of the Iraqi government has been helpful in showing Iraqis that U.S. patience is not unlimited.
But he also said Thursday that leaving Iraq in chaos will bring disaster to the Middle East, "and ultimately to us."
Harkening back to the successful efforts to end the Cold War, Gate said Americans must learn from history.
"When we are willing to lead the way; when we meet our commitments and stand with our allies even in troubling times ... and when we make the necessary sacrifices and take the necessary risks to defend our values and our interests — then good things, even great things, are possible and probable for our country and the world," Gates said.