Scanning a foggy future in Middle East

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Defense Secretary Bob Gates is running through the standard list of factors that have caused political upheaval across the Middle East: the youth bulge, unemployment, corruption. I start to ask another question but Gates cuts me off, as if he wants to underline the dangers and uncertainties of this moment of history.

Gates says the unrest has highlighted “ethnic, sectarian and tribal differences that have been suppressed for years” in the region, and that as America encourages leaders to accept democratic change, there’s a question “whether more democratic governance can hold … countries together in light of these pressures.” The implication: There’s a risk that the political map of the modern Middle East may begin to unravel, too, with, say, the breakup of Libya.

Then Gates says something policymakers rarely admit in crisis, which is that he doesn’t know how things will turn out: “I think we should be alert to the fact that outcomes are not predetermined, and that it’s not necessarily the case that everything has a happy ending. … We are in dark territory and nobody knows what the outcome will be.”

Gates’ tone in the interview was sobering. He spoke during what’s likely to be one of his last foreign trips before his expected retirement this summer, but his comments were anything but triumphal. Instead, they reinforced his role as the Obama administration’s voice of caution and candor. It was as if he were studying spy-satellite images and couldn’t discern what they showed.

On the eve of retirement, Gates is a man who takes pleasure in saying things that are true but impolitic. When legislators were talking about a “no-fly zone” over Libya as if it were a painless remedy, Gates pointedly warned this would be a military attack. In a recent speech at West Point, he said that any successor who enthused about sending another American army to the Middle East “should have his head examined.”

Gates began his government career 45 years ago at the CIA, and he retains some of the acerbic skepticism of a good intelligence analyst. He likes stripping away the sugarcoating that surrounds policy decisions so that his colleagues can see the real risks and realities.

We spoke on a turbulent day when Gates had been receiving reports of a possible coup against President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, increasingly violent protests in Syria, and the controversial military action in Libya. In every direction, Gates said, you could see shifts in “these tectonic plates in the Middle East (that) have essentially been frozen for close to 60 years.”

The challenge for the U.S., Gates said, is to somehow manage this process of change — which “is coming regardless of what you do” — in a way that encourages stability. He offered two lessons for leaders facing unrest: first, “get out ahead of change” by making reforms early; and second, avoid violence, which “usually backfires.” He said that if Hosni Mubarak had made concessions earlier “he’d probably still be the president of Egypt.”

One stabilizing factor has been U.S. relationships with local militaries. In Egypt, where such contacts were extensive, “we could not have been more fortunate in the way things have turned out and, frankly, in the leadership of the military council,” Gates said. And in Yemen, generals and tribal leaders “tell us they’re very positively inclined toward the United States.”

As for Libya, Gates said his initial concerns about the no-fly zone were overcome because of Arab support for it: “Had the Arab League not voted that, there might have been a different outcome, both at the U.N. and our own decision.”

Gates grew up in the Cold War years when the world, however dangerous, had a stability and predictability. “We’ve never encountered anything like this,” he said of the current Middle East turmoil. He offered a basic rubric for the use of American power: When facing direct threats to its security, the U.S. must act “decisively and, if necessary, unilaterally.” In other cases, such as Libya, where the U.S. has interests but doesn’t face a direct threat, it should go to war only with an international coalition.

It’s telling that when Gates was asked by Russian naval students here to name his most significant achievement, he didn’t mention the wars he is fighting in Afghanistan and Libya, but the one he ended, in Iraq. He would doubtless like to leave his successor a calmer Middle East, where change and stability are interwoven, but as he said, “that’s a tough act.”

David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His e-mail address is

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