(CNSNews.com) - The United States "simply cannot afford to fail in the Middle East," incoming Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said during his swearing-in ceremony at the Pentagon on Monday.
Failure in Iraq "would be a calamity," he added.
After taking the oath of office from Vice President Dick Cheney, Gates said he was returning "to public service in the hope that I can make a difference at a time when our nation is facing daunting challenges and difficult choices."
While acknowledging that the Department of Defense "as always, is carrying on many different activities, all at the same time," Gates stated that "Iraq is at the top of the list."
"All of us want to find a way to bring America's sons and daughters home again, but as the president has made clear, we simply cannot afford to fail in the Middle East," the new secretary said. "Failure in Iraq at this juncture would be a calamity that would haunt our nation, impair our credibility and endanger Americans for decades to come.
"In the days since the Senate confirmed me, I have participated in most of the National Security Council meetings on Iraq, I've received a number of briefings here at the Department of Defense, and I've discussed the situation and way forward in Iraq in depth with the president," he said.
"I intend to travel quite soon to Iraq and meet with our military leaders and other personnel there," Gates added. "I look forward to hearing their honest assessments of the situation on the ground and having the benefit of their advice, unvarnished and straight from the shoulder, on how to proceed in the weeks and months ahead."
Afghanistan was also a "pressing concern," he noted. "The progress made by the Afghan people over the past five years is at risk," but "the United States and its NATO allies have made a commitment to the Afghan people, and we intend to keep it."
"Afghanistan cannot be allowed to become a sanctuary for extremists again," Gates stated.
"How we face these and other challenges in the region over the next two years will determine whether Iraq, Afghanistan and other nations at a crossroads will pursue paths of gradual progress towards sustainable governments, which are allies in the global war on terrorism, or whether the forces of extremism and chaos will become ascendant," he said.
Gates was chosen by President Bush after the GOP lost power in the Nov. 7 midterm elections.
On Monday, the president praised Gates as "the right man for the job," calling him "a talented and innovative leader who brings fresh perspective to the Department of Defense."
"It is an honor to have the opportunity to work with the people in this department, dedicated professionals whose overriding priority is the defense of our nation," Gates told the gathering. "I will rely on your clear-eyed advice in the weeks and months ahead.
"Long ago, I learned something about leading large institutions: Leaders come and go, but the professionals endure long after the appointees are gone," he added. "The key to successful leadership, in my view, is to involve in the decision-making process, early and often, those who ultimately must carry out the decisions.
"I will do my best to do just that," Gates stated.
The new secretary of defense took a few moments to praise his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, for devoting "decades of his life to public service."
Rumsfeld was "a very successful secretary of defense, and I hope some of that may rub off on me," Gates added.
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