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Gates Debuts on the Hill As Obama’s Defense Secretary

There are lots of things for Defense Secretary Bob Gates to tell the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning during his first round of testimony as President Obama’s Pentagon chief. What’s up with the Iraq troop drawdown and the Afghanistan strategy reviews? How can the United States responsibly close Guantanamo and overhaul detentions and interrogations policy? Isn’t Raytheon lobbyist Bill Lynn fatally compromised as Gates’ deputy? And when’s the defense budget coming out?

Here’s what Gates said in his opening statement. First, “this spring,” he said, he’ll present the defense budget and will “at that time” be able to talk about Obama’s defense priorities — so expect few specifics today about weapons programs or overall defense postures. “New or changing policies will likely advise in the weeks and months ahead.”

Afghanistan: it’s “our greatest military challenge” right now. “A thriving drug trade fueling corruption, a ruthless insurgency” requires international coordination, which so far has been “difficult, to say the least.” There is “no purely military solution in Afghanistan, but it is also clear that we have not had enough troops to provide baseline security.” Gates doesn’t promise a troop increase, interestingly, but rather says a troop increase is being “considered,” as well as a “massive increase” in Afghan security forces. What should the objectives in Afghanistan be? “Above all, an Afghan people who do not provide a safe haven for Al Qaeda,” doesn’t support the Taliban and supports the government. It is “impossible to disaggregate Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

Iraq: SOFA calls for Iraqi troops to be out of cities end of June, “all troops” out by 2011 “at the latest.” Gates calls it “a balanced… and important step… a watershed, a firm indication that American military involvement in Iraq is drawing down.” But “there may be hard days ahead for our troops.” Expect to “be involved in Iraq in some level for many years to come” pending the Iraqi government wants some kind of partnership.”

Procurement and Acquisition (Military Contracting): “I ended up punting a number of procurement decisions” in the Bush administration to focus on the wars and “now I’m the receiver.” He blasts “parochial interests” — interesting if he’ll view in the light of his would-be-deputy — but also blasts “vacancies” in key acquisition posts, “where a small set of weapons programs have a repeated set of problems… the list spans the services… While there is no silver bullet, I do believe we can make headway.”

The forthcoming budget “must make hard choices… we must have the courage” across the services. Hmm. “Economies of scale… greater quantities of systems” can perhaps lower costs. “Budget and procurement decisions have become overwhelmingly service-centric,” rather than taking into account overall defense needs and strategies. America at war favors short wars, or plans for future war “but not to wage a protracted war.”

Now Gates really gets going, taking a big overview. We need to “close the yawning gap” between how the Pentagon plans for future wars and wages current ones. “Driven more by the actual concerns of potential adversaries, and less by what is technologically feasible” — Donald Rumsfeld, you are officially dead and buried, career-wise. “The defense spigot that opened on 9/11… is closing.” We “will not be able to do everything, buy everything… now is the time to take action… I will focus on creating a unified defense strategy.” He asks Congress to help him — essentially challenging representatives and Senators to put aside parochial concerns about what defense programs provide jobs in their districts and states and focus on the overall national interest.

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