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Gates, Clinton Present Common U.S. Policy Front On Iran, Afghanistan

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (left) and Defense Secretary Robert Gates take the stage at George Washington University.
WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates play two very different roles in the development and execution of U.S. foreign policy.

In the simplest of descriptions, she represents soft power and he represents hard power: the handshake and the hammer.

But on October 5, in a rare joint appearance, they spoke with one voice on two of the most urgent issues facing President Barack Obama's administration: Afghanistan and Iran.

The setting was the campus of George Washington University, just a few blocks from Clinton's office at the State Department. The hourlong event was hosted by CNN, which will broadcast it worldwide on October 6.

The topic that has had Washington buzzing for weeks -- Afghanistan and the Obama administration's review of its strategy there -- dominated most of the discussion.

Clinton said the goal in Afghanistan remains the same as what Obama stated last March: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al-Qaeda. But she said the tactics and strategy necessary to achieve that goal may need revising, which is what she and the other members of Obama's national-security team have been discussing in private, top-level White House meetings.

'Rethink' On Afghanistan

Gates pointed out that Obama announced months ago that he would revisit the war strategy after the August election, and that since this announcement, two things have happened.

One, the new commander of U.S. and NATO forces, General Stanley McChrystal, did an assessment that found the security situation far more serious than what existed last March. And two, Gates said the "clearly flawed" presidential election in August has complicated the picture.

Given those two developments, the defense secretary said a rethink was in order.

"The notion of being willing to pause, reassess basic assumptions, reassess the analysis, and then make those decisions -- seems to me, given the importance of these decisions -- which I've said are probably among the most important he will make in his entire presidency -- seems entirely appropriate," Gates said.

At the center of the Afghan strategy discussions is a pending request by McChrystal for 40,000 additional U.S. troops. With 60,000 U.S. troops already on the ground as the war enters its ninth year, Obama is facing stiff opposition to an increase from members of his own party in Congress.

Obama is due to hold discussions on the issue with top lawmakers on Capitol Hill later on October 6.

Strategy Discussions

Last week, McChrystal gave a speech in London in which he warned that without additional troops, the U.S. mission in Afghanistan will fail. That prompted Gates to deliver his own public warning in a speech he gave earlier on October 5.

Without naming McChrystal, he said, "It is imperative that all of us taking part in these deliberations, civilians and military alike, provide our best advice to the president, candidly but privately."

At the CNN event, Gates denied he was trying to "muzzle McChrystal" and said the general will testify before Congress as soon as Obama makes his decision, expected in a couple of weeks.

Neither Clinton or Gates would be drawn into talking about what options the president is considering, saying that the advice of his senior advisers should remain private until a decision is made.

Alternative strategies reportedly under discussion include reducing the U.S. footprint in Afghanistan and focusing more on the border areas with Pakistan, and using air power such as drones to carry out targeted strikes on suspected militant safe havens.

Gates was asked about the fact that an estimated 80 percent of Afghanistan today has a permanent Taliban presence -- compared to 72 percent a year ago, and 54 percent in 2007. He quoted from McChrystal's recent assessment that the situation in Afghanistan is "serious and deteriorating."

Gates said he had "no doubt" that if Afghanistan falls to the Taliban, Al-Qaeda will have considerably more space in which to strengthen its forces, increase its recruitment, and raise more money for its jihad.

Gates said a defeat of the United States and its NATO allies would send "a hugely empowering message" to radical Islamic jihadists everywhere.

Progress Seen On Iran

When the discussion turned to Iran, Clinton said last week's meeting in Geneva between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany had been "worthwhile."

She said the agreements reached - to allow inspectors into Iran's recently disclosed nuclear site near Qom, for Iran to send its low-enriched uranium to Russia for further enrichment and fabrication into fuel rods for its research reactor, and to meet again for more talks - represented real progress.

"We think that on those three big issues, this was a worthwhile meeting," she said. "But as the president has said, and I and others have made clear, this is not by any means a stopping point. There is much more to be done, we expect much more."

But there has been criticism of the meeting by some who say that the concessions are more examples of Iran playing the United States to buy more time to pursue its weapons program.

Writing in the "The Wall Street Journal" on October 5, former U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton said that "the agreement constitutes another in the long string of Iranian negotiating victories over the West."

Clinton disputed that view, arguing that because Iran has agreed in principle to use its already enriched uranium for permitted research, it won't be used for weapons-related activities.

"So yes, does it buy time? It buys time," she said. "It buys time for us to consider carefully their response, the sincerity of their actions, and we're moving simultaneously on the dual track."

That dual track is one Obama has pledged to pursue since his days on the campaign trail -- one that engages Iran but also works with allies to stand with the United States on a sanctions program if negotiations fail.

Supporting Iranians' Rights

The secretary of state was also asked if she worried that the Iranians who this summer protested the reelection of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad might feel forgotten by the United States as it engages Tehran on issues like fuel rods and nuclear-plant inspection visits.

Clinton said the United States has been clear in its support for the democratic aspirations of all Iranians and spoken out strongly against the election irregularities.

She compared the U.S. position toward Iran to its stance toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War, when U.S. negotiators worked with their Soviet counterparts on both human rights and nuclear deterrence issues.

"Human rights [are] at the core of who we are as Americans. We hope for all people the rights that we enjoy here," Clinton said.

"But at the same time, just as no American president walked away from summits with the Russian presidents working to try to achieve the goals that you could possibly find common ground on, that's what we're doing with the Iranians."

Clinton said the Obama administration did not see the issue as an "either/or" proposition.