By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT, March 12, 2011 - En route to Washington after leaving Bahrain today, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said while Bahrain's rulers are serious about coming to terms with the opposition, governments across the region must understand that reforms must come, and quickly.
Flying stateside after a weeklong series of visits to Afghanistan, Germany, Belgium and Bahrain, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates offered reporters traveling with him his perspective on a week that also witnessed horrific damage to Japan following an earthquake and tsunami.
The secretary said he had good conversations while in Bahrain with King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. Gates said he is confident they are ready to engage in meaningful discussions with the opposition and establish necessary reforms.
"I am convinced they both are serious about real reform," the secretary said. "I think that the concern now is that it's important that they have somebody to talk to, and that the opposition be willing to sit down with the government and carry this process forward."
Given Bahraini rulers' willingness to engage with the opposition, Gates said, he believes they can serve as a model for the entire region. The challenge for Middle East and North African governments faced with civil unrest in recent months, he said, is to maintain stability and continuity while instituting positive reforms.
Gates said he told Bahrain's king and crown prince that citizens' desire for governmental change and reform across the region was real and irreversible.
"That across the region, I did not believe there could be a return to the status quo ante. That there was change; and it could be led, or it could be imposed," Gates said he told the Bahraini leaders.
Governments leading reform and being responsive, Gates said, is what the United States would like to see in the region.
Gates said the meetings in Bahrain included much talk of Iran.
"We [have] no evidence that Iran started any of these popular revolutions, or demonstrations," the secretary said. What is clear, he added, is that Iran will exploit any opportunities popular unrest offers.
In a media session following his meetings with Gates, the crown prince was vocal about the need for opposing parties to seek common ground.
"There is ... [a] point of view in the country that a significant portion of the electoral base feels that their voice is unheard, and they want the respect due to them," the crown prince said.
"At the end of the day," he added, "we are all going to have to live in the same country together and talk to one another."
Gates said he sees no threat to the security of the Navy's 5th Fleet based in Manama, Bahrain, or to other U.S. assets, but noted the U.S. has the capacity to respond as needed to events in the region.
"One of the issues under discussion with respect to Libya, obviously, is a no-fly zone," he said.
While that would involve considerable resources, the secretary said, "If we are directed to impose a no-fly zone, we have the resources to do it."
The question is not whether the United States and its allies have the ability to establish a no-fly zone in Libya, Gates said.
"The question is whether it's a wise thing to do," the secretary said. "That's the discussion that's going on at a political level."
Turning to the recent earthquake and tsunami natural disasters in Japan, the secretary said the United States has ships and helicopters in and converging on the area to offer any rescue, humanitarian or disaster relief assistance Japan requests.
"We're working very closely with the government of Japan and with our embassy, and we'll be responsive," Gates said.
Asked about remarks he made yesterday at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, urging International Security Assistance Force contributing nations to maintain their commitment to the mission in Afghanistan, Gates said he had tried to send a clear message.
The secretary said his comments were intended to prevent "a stampede for the exits, using whatever drawdowns we begin with in July as a pretext."
Gates said his message to NATO was cautionary.
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves here," he said. "We've still got to [get to] 2014, and we've still got a lot of work to do."
Robert M. Gates
Special Report: Travels With Gates
State Department Background Note on Bahrain
NATO International Security Assistance Force
Gates Visits Bahrain to Urge Reform Dialogue
Gates Sees 'Very Encouraging' Progress in Afghanistan