Uncertain outlook for Middle East: Gates

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 22, 2011 8:27 PM

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Unrest in Middle Eastern countries is being fed by long-simmering tensions and has left the region in a "dark territory" with an uncertain outcome, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a Washington Post interview published on Tuesday.

Gates, in Russia where he faced criticism over the U.S. role in coalition air raids on Libya, told the newspaper economic conditions and corruption played a part in the upheaval in the Middle East this year but said it also had deeper roots.

In an interview published on the Post's website, he said the unrest highlighted "ethnic, sectarian and tribal differences that have been suppressed for years." While the United States might want democratic movements to take hold in the region, Gates said it was unclear "whether more democratic governance can hold ... countries together in light of these pressures."

"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," he said. "We are in dark territory and nobody knows what the outcome will be."

Unrest this year led to the ouster of longtime leaders in Tunisia and Egypt and battles to unseat Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, as well as unrest in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen. Gates, who has announced plans to step down as defense secretary, likened the upheaval to a shift in "tectonic plates in the Middle East (that) have been essentially frozen for close to 60 years."

(Writing by Bill Trott; Editing by Peter Cooney)