updated 5/3/2007 8:34:26 PM ET 2007-05-04T00:34:26

The United States should not shirk its responsibilities as a global leader or withdraw from the fight against terrorists just because Americans are weary of the battle, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday.

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Two days after President Bush vetoed legislation that would have set a deadline for a troop withdrawal from Iraq, Gates said that while weariness with the war is understandable, “we must not let that weariness cause us to withdraw from the world or diminish our ability to deal with the threats and challenges of tomorrow.”

Speaking to the Dallas Chamber of Commerce, Gates’ comments also appeared to shrug off efforts by his top commander in the Middle East, Adm. William Fallon, to avoid references to the “long war.”

Fallon, commander of U.S. Central Command, decided the phrase sent the wrong message to allies in the Middle East who could interpret it as a long-term commitment by the U.S. to combat or to occupation in Iraq.

Gates dropped a pointed reference in his prepared text to there being no end in sight to the long war on terror. But he added, “Violent extremist networks and ideologies will continue to be a threat to the United States and our allies for many years. The ambition of these networks to acquire chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons is real, as is their desire to launch more attacks on our country and on our interests around the world.”

Gates’ and Fallon’s predecessors, former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Gen. John Abizaid, had used the term “long war” regularly to describe the war on terror — a fight they said would be battled on many fronts and against a vast array of enemies.

The defense secretary has said repeatedly the bitter debate between Bush and the Democratically led Congress over setting a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq — and benchmarks for progress of the Iraqi government — has helped to show Iraqis that U.S. patience is not unlimited.

Learning from history
But he also said Thursday that leaving Iraq in chaos would bring disaster to the Middle East, “and ultimately to us.”

Harkening back to the successful efforts to end the Cold War, Gates said Americans must learn from history.

“When we are willing to lead the way, when we meet our commitments and stand with our allies even in troubling times ... and when we make the necessary sacrifices and take the necessary risks to defend our values and our interests — then great things are possible and probable for our country and the world,” Gates said.

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