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Robert Gates on Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Defense Budget

An interview with the secretary of Defense.

6:30 AM, Feb 23, 2011 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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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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