WASHINGTON– Though future presidents must retain their ability to prevent an attack on the United States, the Iraq war experience likely will make them more cautious about authorizing a pre-emptive strike based on intelligence, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday. “I think one of the biggest lessons learned in this is that if you are going to contemplate pre-empting an attack, you had better be very, very confident of the intelligence that you have,” Gates said during a TV appearance yesterday on PBS’s “Tavis Smiley Show.”

“And I think the lessons learned with the failure to find the weapons of mass destruction [in Iraq], and some of the other things that happened, will make any future president very, very cautious about launching that kind of conflict or relying on intelligence,” he said.

Future presidents are likely to “ask a lot of very hard questions” before using force pre-emptively, Gates said. “I think that hurdle is much higher today that it was six or seven years ago,” he said.

With more than four decades of intelligence experience, Gates conceded that intelligence is almost never crystal clear. “In very few crises is the intelligence unambiguous – do you have a clear-cut indication of what’s going to happen,” he said. “So you take the best intelligence you have, and then you have to make judgments about that.”

However, Gates also cited broad intelligence improvements made since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He credited intelligence and law enforcement improvements, along with better cooperation and information-sharing among agencies, with helping prevent a subsequent attack on the United States.

“The threat is always out there,” he said. “But here we are, seven and a half years later, and there has not been another successful attack.”

Now working for his eighth president, Gates said there’s been a common thread. “The one thing we know, and seem to have to learn again and again, is that war is inherently unpredictable,” he said. “I believe that we need to be very, very cautious about getting into conflicts, because it’s always easier to get in than to get out.”

He conceded that the war in Iraq didn’t turn out to be the quick, largely conventional conflict most people expected. The protracted counterinsurgency challenge that confronted the coalition wasn’t anticipated. Even now, while violence has dropped dramatically, remnants of the insurgency still launch attacks.

“We’ve always said that al-Qaida retains the lingering capacity to try and have these spectacular events,” Gates said. It’s “going to be a long time before there are no attacks in Iraq and before the terrorists there are completely brought under control.”

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