US Navy is still vital in the Middle East, senator says

The Navy's presence in the Middle East isn't going to diminish any time soon even with the war in Afghanistan winding down, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine said Friday.

Speaking from Manama, Bahrain, where he is attending an international security conference, Kaine said the Navy's 5th Fleet has a vital role in protecting sea lanes for commerce.

"The transit of oil and other goods through the Strait of Hormuz are going to continue to be very critical," he said in a conference call with reporters.

"The Navy will be here in a very significant way," said Kaine, who had lunch with sailors aboard the San Jacinto, a Norfolk-based guided missile cruiser. "... There would be no strategic reason for us to be reducing presence here."

However, he said, some "non-strategic factors" - including automatic defense budget cuts and Congress's inability to approve a budget - could affect military operations. "That's the asterisk right now."

The Virginia Democrat is a member of a House-Senate committee attempting to negotiate a budget deal. The committee's leaders are attempting to draft a proposal to bring before both chambers before the House's scheduled adjournment Friday.

Kaine, who also serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said his message at the annual Manama Dialogue - a meeting of Middle Eastern nations and their allies - is that the U.S. role in the region is becoming less military-oriented.

"We are in a time of transition," he said. "The attack of 9/11 gave us a very focused kind of lens through which to view our foreign policy responses... and that was fighting terrorism."

The U.S. is working on a broader foreign policy, Kaine said, that focuses on "aggressive diplomacy," expanding trade and "the appropriate projection of American values - especially supporting democratic aspirations."

But he cautioned that Americans have to be patient and sensitive to cultural differences as countries move to more democratic systems.

"It doesn't happen quickly," Kaine said. "It didn't happen quickly in the United States."

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