Robert Gates speaks out

The defence minister goes after the Europeans, Turkey, and the ongoing war in Afghanistan

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Robert Gates is not mincing words. With two wars to run and tensions rising in the Middle East and on the Korean peninsula, the usually mild-mannered U.S. secretary of defence has been speaking his mind. A former CIA director and president of Texas A & M University, Gates was brought in by President George W. Bush to replace Donald Rumsfeld in 2006. While his predecessor’s public pronouncements could be so terse and tart that they inspired a book of “existential poetry,” Gates, who was kept on by President Barack Obama, had until now brought a softer touch. But as the critical relationship between the U.S. and Turkey has deteriorated over the Israeli raid on the Turkish flotilla, Gates lashed out at the Europeans for denying the country membership in the EU, and suggested that the secular Muslim nation risks being pushed into the arms of eastern powers such as Iran and Russia.

“I personally think that if there is anything to the notion that Turkey is, if you will, moving eastward, it is, in my view, in no small part because it was pushed, and pushed by some in Europe refusing to give Turkey the kind of organic link to the West that Turkey sought,” Gates told reporters on a recent visit to London. “I think we have to think long and hard about why these developments in Turkey [occurred] and what we might be able to do to counter them.” (While the Obama administration has advocated Turkish membership in the EU, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and several other EU leaders are firmly opposed.)

On Thursday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan struck back at Gates’s suggestion that Turkey was turning eastward. Erdogan, who earlier in the week had hosted the leaders of Iran and Russia at a regional security forum, denied that his country was moving away from the West. “Those who say that Turkey has broken away from the West are the intermediaries of an ill-intentioned propaganda,” he said at a Turkish-Arab Economic Co-operation Forum in Ankara. But Gates soon lashed out as well—after Ankara refused to support a new round of United Nations sanctions against Iran. “I’ll be honest, I was disappointed in Turkey’s vote on the Iranian sanctions,” he said at the end of a two-day meeting of defence ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

Indeed, Turkey and Brazil were the only two of the 15-nation Security Council to vote against increased sanctions aimed at slowing Tehran’s nuclear program, which Gates said is on track to develop a nuclear weapon in one to three years. The Turkish government had argued that a nuclear fuel swap deal, brokered by Turkey and Brazil last month, created an opening for more diplomacy with the Iranian regime.

On another front—the ongoing battle against insurgents in Afghanistan—Gates also had a dire warning. NATO desperately needs a military breakthrough against the Taliban by the end of this year, he said. Voters in NATO countries are “going to expect to see some progress this winter,” Gates added. One thing the public in the United States and elsewhere will not tolerate, the defence minister said, “is the perception of a stalemate in which we’re losing young men.”