MANAMA, Bahrain — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates warned Saturday that foreign powers should not try to “test” President-elect Barack Obama with a crisis in his first months in office and that Mr. Obama remained committed to the security of the Persian Gulf and American interests in the region.
Mr. Gates, speaking at a conference on regional security here, said that Mr. Obama and his advisers had done more extensive planning across the government for the transition than at any time he could remember and asserted that they would therefore be prepared from day one. Mr. Gates, who is staying on as Defense secretary, has worked for seven presidents. Mr. Obama will be his eighth.
After leaving Bahrain, Mr. Gates made an unannounced visit to Iraq, The Associated Press reported.
“So anyone who thought that the upcoming months might present opportunities to ‘test’ the new president would be sorely mistaken,” Mr. Gates said at the conference. “President Obama and his national security team, myself included, will be ready to defend the interests of the United States and our friends and allies from the moment he takes office on January 20.”
Mr. Gates was alluding to remarks made in the final days of this year’s presidential campaign by Mr. Obama’s running mate, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrat of Delaware, who told supporters at a Seattle fundraiser in October that the world’s leaders would test Mr. Obama’s mettle as a young president, just as they did John F. Kennedy. Mr. Obama’s Republican opponent, Senator John McCain, pounced on the remark and opened a new line of criticism from Republicans that Mr. Obama was not ready for the presidency.
Mr. Gates, who did not mention President Bush in his address, told the delegates at the conference that he was bringing from Mr. Obama “a message of continuity and commitment to our friends and partners in the region.” He also told them to put the heated rhetoric of the presidential campaign aside.
“Though the American political process is at times tumultuous, and our open and vigorous debates might seem to indicate deep divisions, I can assure you that a change in administration does not alter our fundamental interests, especially in the Middle East,” Mr. Gates said. “Throughout my career in government, which began over 42 years ago, the security of the Gulf has been a central concern of every administration for which I have worked.”
In response to questions from audience members after his formal remarks, Mr. Gates said that although the Pentagon would be sending thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan over the next months, he was ultimately worried about the size of the American footprint on Afghan soil. The United States plans to add some 20,000 troops in Afghanistan in 2009.