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Libya looms over Gates' latest trek

From Charley Keyes, CNN
Defense Secretary Robert Gates boards the "Doomsday Plane" as he wraps up a six-day trip to Russia and the Middle East.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates boards the "Doomsday Plane" as he wraps up a six-day trip to Russia and the Middle East.
  • Robert Gates recently completed a six-day trip abroad
  • He is due to step down at some point this year
  • He has served eight presidents over his career

Aboard A U.S. Military Aircraft (CNN) -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates stepped out of a helicopter at Amman Airport in Jordan. He smiled at his staff and the cameras, raised his hands and said, "Let's go home."

Moments later, the "Doomsday Plane," his link to the Pentagon and the White House from wherever he is in the world, rolled down the tarmac and climbed into a sunny sky.

The 67-year-old secretary is on his way out of government after serving eight presidents, but he hasn't announced a departure date yet other than saying it will be this year. And these regular trips are intensive, long days for the former career intelligence professional -- walking the beat, embracing allies, bolstering morale and getting his own fix on the troubles of the day.

Gates ended his latest overseas jaunt -- a six-day trip to Russia and the Middle East -- by traveling by helicopter from Amman Airport to Jordan's Royal Palace for a private, no-cameras-allowed meeting with King Abdullah. He said privately, according to aides, what he had been saying publicly on the trip -- that the upheaval across the Middle East was serving up challenges and opportunities, and the key was to sort them out.

Overshadowing his stops in Russia, Egypt and Israel was the U.S. and coalition military operation over Libya.

He delayed his planned departure on this trip for a day at the start of the air attacks.

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While in Russia, he found himself in the middle of a political dispute over the Libyan mission.

Aides informed him when a U.S. fighter jet and two aviators went down and were rescued near Benghazi.

He was briefed on every development as the U.S. Air Force and Navy led the airstrikes.

And while many on his plane dozed or ate their meatloaf and mashed potatoes on the flight back to Washington on Friday, Gates was linked to the White House and a National Security Council conference call for the latest deliberations on the military, diplomatic and political calculus of enforcing the Libyan mission.

Gates will make appearances on the Sunday talk show circuit and visit Capitol Hill in the coming days to offer public and private explanations of how the U.S. military performed. And perhaps he also will speak about his view of the future. But on the trip, in public statements, and in talking to traveling and local journalists, he was careful and diplomatic. He dispensed with each question about "the endgame" of the Libyan missions by saying the goals are clear: creation and enforcement of the no-fly zone and protection of Libyan civilians.

About targeting Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, about working in concert with Libyan rebels, about the risk of a military stalemate, Gates wouldn't bite, saying the future there is for the Libyans themselves to decide.

Gates told America's Middle East allies that Washington stands by them. In Cairo, he repeated his praise for the Egyptian military for keeping that country from going over the brink in the mass protests that toppled President Hosni Mubarak just last month.

He arrived in Israel just after a bus stop bombing in Jerusalem and continuing rocket attacks in the south. Gates repeated the standard line that the U.S. commitment was unshakeable and used the code words for continued aid, saying that the United States would ensure Israel's qualitative military edge.

On his last day, he moved briskly from photo-op to meetings. The first stop was the old Roman town of Caesarea, a luxury hotel where guests gawked at the motorcade and the heavily armed, plain-clothes Israeli agents standing watch.

Inside, Gates met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who promised that the recent terrorism would be answered with what he called "great force and great determination to put a stop to it." And there was also mention of the elusive goal of a peace agreement, with Netanyahu adding, "we seek to establish security for the establishment of peace."

Gates offered his condolences to the families of the victims of the terror attack and those enduring the rocket attacks in southern Israel.

Next stop for Gates, after a wild convoy ride through Israeli traffic, was the West Bank, and a reminder of how many administrations have tried and failed to nudge the sides toward Mideast peace. Now in an armored SUV, he crossed over to newly constructed Palestinian Authority offices in Ramallah. In the diplomatic game, where symbols can substitute for substance, Gates acknowledged that his presence alone made history.

"I understand I'm the first American secretary of defense to visit Ramallah," Gates told the Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

At the end of his remarks before the assembled media, before a 50-minute closed-door meeting, Gates added that he looked forward to discussing the central -- but elusive -- element of U.S. peace proposals for Israel and the Palestinians, a two-state solution.

Later, in Ramallah, crowds of people leaving a mosque at the end of Friday prayers watched the Gates convoy glide past, as the secretary raced on to his next meeting and on to Washington.

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