Gates says Libya strategy 'absolutely right'

  • Published
  • By Jim Garamone
  • American Forces Press Service
The U.S. strategy toward Libya is "absolutely right," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said on "Fox News Sunday" June 19.

The secretary, who will retire June 30, also discussed Afghanistan, the fiscal future of the department and what he will miss about the job during one of his last interviews as secretary.

The United States and its allies began the operation to protect Libyans from the depredations of the Gadhafi regime, and then turned leadership of the effort over to NATO. "When this operation started ... we had 50,000 troops in Iraq. We had 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. We had 24,000 people engaged in Japanese earthquake relief. We have a number of commitments around the world," Secretary Gates said.

"The arrangement and the understanding the president had with our key allies from the very beginning was the U.S. would come in heavy at beginning, establish a no-fly zone and then hand off the operation to our allies and that we would recede into a support role," he said. "That was his decision going in, and he stuck to it."

The operation is protecting the Libyan people, and the regime is getting weaker each day, he said.

The secretary believes President Obama has complied with the War Powers Act. But the president would also welcome the Congress passing a resolution of support.

From the U.S. standpoint, American service members are "involved in a limited kinetic operation. If I'm in Qaddafi's palace, I suspect I'd think I'm at war," he said.

Secretary Gates also discussed the strategy in Afghanistan. Once President Obama decided on a strategy in December 2009, he has stuck with it. As part of that strategy, U.S. troops will be drawn down gradually, turning over security responsibility to Afghan forces.

"It's always been envisioned that with success on the ground, that the balance between combination of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, the way it would shift more to counterterrorism over time," Secretary Gates said. "We have had a lot of success over the last 15 months in Afghanistan. The conditions on the ground are far better than they were a year ago."

This fighting season, the coalition and its Afghan allies have not only held everything taken from the Taliban last year, they have been able to expand security and further disrupt the infiltrations coming in from Pakistan, Secretary Gates said.

Turning to the budget, the secretary said he is worried about the fiscal future of the department. He is afraid that many whose primary concern is the deficit will see the department as a cash cow.

"The base defense budget is not part of the deficit problem, he said. "Our percentage of the base budget, not counting the cost of wars, the defense budget is about 3.5 percent of (gross domestic product). That's basically the lowest that's been, except for a brief period in the '90s, since before World War II."

The department will economize and the cost of the wars will fall dramatically in the next few years. "I think that it's a mistake - particularly to couch the question in terms of the cost of war, because my question is, what's the cost of failure?" he said. "What was cost of 9/11 because we left Afghanistan in 1989? How much money have we spent since 9/11 trying to deal with that problem?"

The United States is on the right road with the combat role in Afghanistan scheduled to end in 2014. "So, this isn't an open-ended conflict," he said. "I just ask people to consider the consequences of failure."

Secretary Gates has served 45 years in public service. He offered a few insights gained from experience. "When we have been successful in national security and foreign affairs, it has been because there has been bipartisan support," he said.

At its heart, success comes when the executive and legislative branches have agreed on the basic tenets of the national security strategy. "That's what happened through nine presidencies and the Cold War that led to our success, because no major international problem can be solved on one president's watch," he said. "And so, unless it has bipartisan support, unless it can be extended over a period of time, the risks of failure is high."

Secretary Gates said the only thing he will miss about being secretary is the chance to interact with the troops. "I just spent three days with them in Afghanistan a week-and-a-half ago, and getting on that plane was very hard," he said.

He felt he was leaving them behind while they were still in the fight. "They're so dedicated and so confident and they're so capable," he said. "They're just (such) extraordinary people."