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In an interview broadcast Sunday on CNN’s State of the Union, Gates said the focus on Iraq by the previous administration of President George W. Bush meant the operation in Afghanistan has been limited.
“The reality is, we were fighting a holding action,” Gates said of situation under Bush, whom he also served as defense secretary.
“We were very deeply engaged in Iraq,” Gates said, later adding: “We were too stretched to do more. And I think we did not have the kind of comprehensive strategy that … we have now.”
Setting an exit strategy for Afghanistan would be a mistake, but the United States also will closely monitor developments to ensure its strategy is achieving desired results, Gates said.
Obama is under increasing pressure from congressional Republicans who favor sending more troops, as desired by commanding Gen. Stanley McChrystal, while many of the president’s fellow Democrats are expressing resistance.
Gates said McChrystal “found a situation in Afghanistan that is more serious than … we had thought and that he had thought before going out there.”
Asked why the Obama administration has yet to decide on McChrystal’s assessment that more troops will be necessary to defeat insurgents and protect the local population, Gates said it would take more time to properly analyze the situation.
"I think we are in the middle of a review," Gates told CNN Chief National Correspondent John King, adding : “Once we're confident we have the strategy right, then - then we'll address the question of additional resources.”
Gates also noted that any additional combat troops for Afghanistan "really probably could not begin to flow" until January 2010.
He disagreed with setting a clear exit strategy for Afghanistan.
“I think that certainly the intelligence people have no doubt that … this is an illicit nuclear facility, if only … because the Iranians kept it a secret,” Gates said in an interview broadcast on CNN’s State of the Union.
“If they wanted it for peaceful nuclear purposes, there's no reason to put it so deep underground, no reason to be deceptive about it, keep it a … secret for a protracted period of time,” Gates said.
Gates refused to rule out a military strike by the United States and its allies, but called for diplomatic efforts including sanctions first.
“The reality is, there is no military option that does anything more than buy time,” Gates said. “The estimates are one to three years or so. And the only way you end up not having a nuclear-capable Iran is for the Iranian government to decide that their security is diminished by having those weapons, as opposed to strengthened.
“And so I think, as I say, while you don't take options off the table, I think there's still room left for diplomacy.”
Gate said “a variety of options” remained available, including sanctions on banking and equipment and technology for Iran’s oil and gas industry.
The Pentagon chief acknowledged that "China's participation is clearly important" in an effort to impose economic sanctions on Iran for flouting international rules for the development of nuclear enrichment facilities.
Gates also said that October 1 talks between Iran, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia, and China offered the group of six world powers the opportunity for some potential "leverage" over the Iranians.
"I think we are all sensitive to the possibility of the Iranians trying to run the clock out on us. And - and so nobody thinks of this as an open-ended process,” Gates said.
The United States continues to work with Israel about the situation in Iran, Gates achnowledged.
"Well, Israel obviously thinks of the Iranian nuclear program as an existential threat to Israel,” he said. “We've obviously been in close touch with them, as our ally and friend, and - and continue to urge them to let this diplomatic and economic sanctions path play out."
MACKINAC ISLAND, Michigan (CNN) – Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney had sharp words for President Barack Obama's handling of foreign relations Saturday, saying that the president is "above" the world stage and acting too much as a "neutral arbiter" who uses only words to tell other nations what's right and what's wrong.
Referring to the first months of Obama's presidency, the former Republican presidential candidate said there's been a "dramatic shift," with that shift going in the wrong direction.
"America has always been a ardent supporter of democratic efforts and protecting and defending American values and western values," Romney said, "but this president seems intent to step back to - if you will - lift himself above the world stage and say we're not a player down there with everybody else between the democracies and the autocracies."
"Instead we're going to become the neutral arbiter," Romney continued. "We're going to be above everybody. Almost like the United Nations, sort of telling people what's right and what's wrong, instead of coming down firmly, solidly, and vehemently in favor of democracy."