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On Russia, Gates urges caution

The defense chief suggests a balanced approach in dealing with Moscow, seeming to differ from McCain.

September 20, 2008|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

WOODSTOCK, ENGLAND — Sounding a note of caution in the West's confrontation with Russia, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Friday that the next U.S. administration would need "a pragmatic blend of resolve and restraint" in dealing with Moscow.

By seeking a middle ground in relations with Russia, Gates appeared to be sounding a warning to politicians such as Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, who have pushed for the United States to isolate Russia after its military confrontation with Georgia, and back the small former Soviet republic at all costs.

In the speech delivered at Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill, Gates juxtaposed 1938, when Europe ceded the Sudetenland to Adolf Hitler at a conference in Munich, Germany, with 1914, when a web of alliances dragged the continent into a long and gruesome war, to bring to mind two polar-opposite historical mistakes.

Although evoking the specter of World War I sounded like a warning against extending membership in NATO to Georgia, Gates did not address the issue explicitly. He said the West should not enter alliances lightly, but also emphasized that the U.S. would live up to its NATO obligation to defend its allies if they were attacked.

"We need to be careful about the commitments we make," Gates said. "But we must be willing to keep commitments once made."

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Divided on Georgia

North Atlantic Treaty Organization ministers met in London on Thursday night and Friday but did not discuss extending membership to Georgia. There are sharp disagreements in the alliance on that issue, said a senior U.S. official familiar with the discussions. Many ministers believe that the membership debate would distract from more immediate efforts to assist Georgia and pressure Russia to pull back, the official said.

Gates insisted that U.S. policy should remain to contain Russian aggression without resorting to military force. Unlike the Soviet Union of old, Russia was not pursuing an "ideology-based effort to dominate the globe," Gates said.

Instead, he said, Moscow's actions were "born of a grievance-based desire to dominate" the countries on its border. Gates also said that even though Russia had increased military spending, its armed forces remained a shadow of the Soviet Union's.

"Russia's current actions, however egregious, do not represent the existential and global threat that the Soviet Union represented," Gates said.

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Referring to 1938

McCain has pushed hard for the United States to support Georgia and other "struggling democracies" in their conflicts with Russia, and has turned to the much-used 1938 analogy.

In an op-ed article that ran a week after the Russian invasion of Georgia, McCain wrote that "the world has learned at great cost the price of allowing aggression against free nations to go unchecked."

In contrast, some European diplomats have in private discussions cited the 1914 analogy and warned of the dangers of an unintended conflict with Moscow.

Gates said the West should take political and economic steps now to shape the international environment so it is not left with the bleak choice between misguided confrontation and foolish capitulation.

Gates suggested that the United States had "overlearned the lessons of Munich," which had helped lead the nation into Vietnam. But he suggested that Europe at times had overlearned the lessons of World War I.

"For much of the past century, Western psychology, rhetoric and policymaking on matters of war and peace has been framed by, and often lurched between, these two poles: between excessive pressures to take military action and excessive restraint, between a too eager embrace of the use of military force and an extreme aversion to it," Gates said.

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.

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