U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday that the United States should maintain a troop presence in Iraq after the scheduled full withdrawal at the end of this year, in part, to balance Iran's influence in the region.
Secretary Gates said Iraqi military officers know they will continue to need U.S. help after the end of the year, particularly on air defense, intelligence gathering and analysis, and logistics. The problem, he said, is that the U.S. military presence is not popular in Iraq, making it difficult for the country’s political leaders to ask for it to continue. “From the standpoint of Iraq’s future, but also our role in the region, I hope they figure out a way to ask. And I think that the United States will be willing to say, ‘Yes,’ when that time comes," he said.
Gates said that despite domestic pressure to reduce military spending, the United States should agree to keep some troops in Iraq, if asked. He said it is worthwhile for the United States to support Iraq’s democracy and to sustain progress made with the help of American money and lives lost in the war. He also noted a strategic reason.
“I think it also sends a powerful signal to the region that we’re not leaving, that we will continue to play a part. I think it would be reassuring to the [Persian] Gulf states. I think it would not be reassuring to Iran, and that’s a good thing. I think it would be reassuring elsewhere in the region as well, beyond the Gulf. So I think that there is a mutual interest, both in Iraq and in the United States, in sustaining this relationship," he said.
Gates’ comments on Iraq came in answer to a question after a speech on global U.S. defense priorities, in which he urged budget-cutters in Congress and the Obama Administration not to lose sight of what he called “absolutely critical” military programs as they look to reduce defense spending. His list includes the new U.S. fighter jet, the F-35, more ships for the Navy, and investment in ground forces to help them recover from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He declined to offer specific proposals for cuts, a decision his press secretary says was designed not to limit the options his successor might submit to the president. But Gates argued against broad cuts that affect all programs, and he said the president's desired level of national security cuts, $400 billion over 12 years, can not be achieved by efficiencies alone, and will involve real reductions in capabilities.
“This process must be about identifying options for the president and the Congress, to ensure the nation consciously acknowledges and accepts additional risk in exchange for reduced investment in the military," he said.
Secretary Gates chose an appearance at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research to repeat his view that the process of cutting defense spending should be a strategic exercise, not a mathematical one. Many people in his audience are strong advocates of defense spending, who also want deep federal spending cuts to reduce the government's budget deficit.
Gates has been making a series of speeches on issues that concern him as he approaches his voluntary departure from office at the end of June, after four and a half years serving President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush.