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Gates answers Putin with good-natured jab

February 12, 2007|Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writer

MUNICH, GERMANY — U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Sunday sought to dismiss stinging accusations by Russia's president that a militaristic American foreign policy was destabilizing global security, brushing aside the remarks as the "blunt speaking" of a fellow former spy.

Speaking at a high-profile international security conference here less than 24 hours after the harangue by Russian leader Vladimir V. Putin, Gates, who spent most of his career as a Soviet analyst at the CIA, made light of the charges, saying they reminded him of his former profession.

"As an old Cold Warrior, one of yesterday's speeches almost filled me with nostalgia for a less complex time," Gates joked. "Almost."

Putin's criticisms were among the harshest of his presidency, accusing the United States of ignoring international law to impose its will in all aspects of foreign affairs, spreading fear in smaller counties that has forced them into seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

Gates did not address the charges specifically, but noted that he and Putin, who long served in the KGB, shared backgrounds as intelligence officers, where directness is highly valued. Gates' stint as head of Texas A&M University, he added, had taught him how to "be nice."

"I guess old spies have a habit of blunt speaking -- however, I have been to re-education camp," he said, drawing widespread laughs from an audience made up of senior American and European officials.

He also said he had accepted an invitation from Putin to visit Russia, adding, "One Cold War was quite enough."

The only substantive criticisms of Russia, in a speech largely devoted to pressuring European allies to live up to their commitments to NATO and the alliance's mission in Afghanistan, was a passing reference to concern about Russian arms sales and the use of energy resources for political coercion.

Sergei B. Ivanov, the Russian defense minister, who spoke shortly after Gates, chose to largely ignore the dispute, devoting his prepared remarks to the issue of countering international terrorism.

Putin's strong statements Saturday caused a firestorm at the conference, prompting some in attendance to speculate it might mark the dawn of a new Cold War.

Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, speaking Sunday on the same panel as Gates, said Putin's remarks illustrated why it was important to further enlarge the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The annual Munich Conference on Security Policy has become an increasingly influential gathering, used by both Americans and Europeans to take the temperature of the transatlantic relationship. Since 2003, the meeting frequently has been packed with caustic accusations over the Iraq war and was dominated by Gates' predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld, who used the platform to provocatively criticize Western European policies.

Gates, attending his first Munich conference, made a brief but significant break from Rumsfeld in his prepared remarks, noting that in the past "some have even spoken in terms of 'old' Europe versus 'new' " -- a clear reference to Rumsfeld's now-famous differentiation between Western European critics of the Iraq war and newer democracies of Eastern Europe that largely supported the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

"These characterizations belong to the past," Gates said.

In a question period after his speech, he went even further in his charm offensive, acknowledging that "we also have made some mistakes" that have harmed the United States' reputation abroad.

"There is no question in my mind that Guantanamo and some of the abuses that have taken place in Iraq have negatively impacted the reputation of the United States," Gates said.

He added that though ideally he would like to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, long a sore point with European critics, "real terrorists" were being held there. Such detainees, he said, would be tried in "legitimate" military tribunals.

"For the last century, one of the great assets the United States has had is that most people around the world felt that while we might from time to time do something stupid, we were a force of good around the world," Gates said.

"I believe a lot of people still believe that, and I think that what we have to focus on as we look to the future is strengthening that reputation."

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