WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he believes Iran is "hell bent" on acquiring nuclear weapons, but he warned in strong terms of the consequences of going to war over that.
"Another war in the Middle East is the last thing we need and, in fact, I believe it would be disastrous on a number of levels," he said in a speech he was delivering Monday evening at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
A copy of his prepared remarks was provided in advance by the Pentagon.
He said he favors keeping the military option against Iran on the table, "given the destabilizing policies of the regime and the risks inherent in a future Iranian nuclear threat — either directly or through proliferation."
Gates also said that if the war in Iraq is not finished on favorable terms the consequences could be dire.
"It is a hard sell to say we must sustain the fight in Iraq right now, and continue to absorb the high financial and human costs of this struggle, in order to avoid an even uglier fight or even greater danger to our country in the future," he said.
But he added that the U.S. experience with Afghanistan — helping the Afghans oust Russian invaders in the 1980s only to abandon the country and see it become a haven for Osama bin Laden's terrorist network — makes it clear to him that a similar approach in Iraq would have similar results.
Gates said the U.S. military was not organized and equipped for the kind of wars it finds itself in today.
"The current campaign has gone on longer, and has been more difficult, than anyone expected or prepared for at the start," he said. "And so we've had to scramble to position ourselves for success over the long haul, which I believe we are doing."
He called a drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq "inevitable," with the debate mainly over timing.
"But the kind of enemy we face today — violent jihadist networks — will not allow us to remain at peace," he said. "What has been called the `long war' is likely to be many years of persistent, engaged combat all around the world in differing degrees of size and intensity. This generational challenge cannot be wished away or put on a timetable. There are no exit strategies."
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