Defense secretary Robert Gates says the United States has not had discussions with its NATO partners about how to handle the unfolding crisis in Libya, and he believes that the United States could not quickly enforce a no-fly zone in the country to keep military jets from shooting on the citizens they’re meant to protect.

“I think it’s all happened so fast,” Gates said Tuesday. “And you know, I mean, the strafing of people and everything is, what, 48 hours old?”

The comments came during a candid 45-minute interview of Gates yesterday afternoon in his capacious Pentagon office with Bill Kristol, Bob Kagan of the Brookings Institution, Paul Gigot from the Wall Street Journal, and me. The discussion touched on a number of topics, including the Pentagon budget, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the changing roil in the Middle East and Libya.

Gates says what happens to Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi and his country is unknowable at this point. “Whether he’s able to reestablish control through extraordinarily bloody repression, whether the army boots him out – although the army isn’t as unified in Libya as it is in some of these other countries that we’re dealing with – whether he goes and it kind of goes back to before '63 in terms of kind of the three parts of the country – the south drawn toward Sub-Saharan Africa, Cyrenaica toward Egypt, and the other part toward the West – have some sort of a consensus among tribal elders or something like that – I think it’s really an open question at this point.”

Gates says there are signs the Libyan military is “fragmenting,” with unconfirmed reports that some commanders have refused orders to fire on protestors and that others have joined the demonstrations. Although the United States has limited capabilities in the region which would make it difficult to set up a no-fly zone quickly, others might be in a better position to help. “The French – I don’t know what the British have in the area – but the French and the Italians potentially, I suppose, could have some assets they could put in there quicker.”

In response to a question about whether the administration should be showing a greater sense of urgency in stopping the bloodshed, Gates said he’s involved in Libya-related meetings “two or three times a day” and reiterated that “it’s a very fast moving situation.”

On Afghanistan, Gates said the July 2011 deadline was “the piece of the strategy that frankly I had the hardest time with during the debate.” Gates had opposed any timelines or deadlines in Iraq, but was ultimately convinced that going public with a date for the start of a withdrawal could be a tool in Afghanistan. “What finally tipped me was I couldn’t think of another way to grab Karzai by the lapels and say: ‘You have to take ownership of this. This is your war. Your young men have to sign up. We will be here, we will be your partner forever, but we are not going to keep tens of thousands of American and other foreign troops here forever. So as a way of grabbing his attention and getting a sense of urgency, I felt it was – I finally agreed to it.”

Although military and civilian officials tell THE WEEKLY STANDARD that the July 2011 deadline has made it harder to get Afghans to cooperate with the U.S. and our allies, Gates believes there may be a payoff when the deadline passes.

“The Taliban were messaging that we were leaving in July of ‘11. It seemed to me that if we were willing to be patient we could do some judo on them. Because if the Taliban were all persuaded we were going to be gone by the end of July ‘11, they were going to be in for a really big surprise in August, September, October, November and so on, because we are still going to have a huge number of forces there.”

Gates says Americans deserve lots of credit for the patience they have shown on Afghanistan. “I would argue that we have only begun to get both the strategy and the resources in place to really fight this war in the last 18 months or so,” he said. “When I took this job on December 18th, 2006, between 2001 and that date, we lost 194 kids. We’ve now lost 1,145. So in terms of a real war, this war has been going on not ten years.”

But Gates seems to think the U.S. is winning – or at least making significant progress. But those advances are not necessarily obvious to the casual observer in the U.S. “I believe the closer you are to the front, the better it looks.”

The cause of the uneven application of U.S. power in Afghanistan, he says, was Iraq. Unlike Afghanistan, where polling shows that large segments of the population want U.S. soldiers to remain, Gates believes Iraqis want Americans gone. The United States, he says, is “very open to a presence post-December,” but we can only stay if the Iraqis ask us to remain. He says there have been preliminary discussions about a continued U.S. presence and he sees areas in which the absence of U.S. cooperative assistance post-drawdown would be damaging.

“If we leave, they have no way to protect their own air space. They have a problem with logistics and maintenance. They have a problem with intelligence, intelligence fusion,” Gates says. “We obviously can help them identify what needs they have, but then they have to be willing to say, ‘Okay, we need your help to do this.’”

On the budget, Gates is dealing with two kinds of Republican hawks on Capitol Hill – defense hawks and budget hawks. And he is concerned that the budget hawks, in a triumph of math over strategy, are too eager to cut the Pentagon budget in their efforts to pare down the deficit. “Defense is not like other discretionary spending. This is something we’ve got to do and that we have a responsibility to do. And so the two shouldn’t be equated. They have not been equated in the past. I mean, that’s why they call it non-defense discretionary spending and so on.”

He adds: “I got it that we’ve got a $1.6 trillion deficit. But defense is not a significant part of that problem. If you took a 10 percent cut in defense, which would be catastrophic in terms of capabilities, that would be $50 billion on a $1.6 trillion deficit.”

And national security, he says, “is the on function that unambiguously belongs to the federal government.”

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