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'Just Say No' to US Bill Tightening Defense Imports, Urges Robertson - 2003-07-18

NATO Secretary-General George Robertson is urging the U.S. Congress to drop a clause in a defense procurement bill that would require the Pentagon to buy more American-made military equipment. The bill passed by the House of Representatives would, in Mr. Robertson's view, increase defense costs and weaken trans-Atlantic ties.

Speaking to a conference on cooperation between U.S. and European defense industries Friday in Brussels, Mr. Robertson joined representatives of the Bush administration in condemning the bill, which is designed to protect the U.S. defense industry.

The measure would require that 65 percent of components purchased by the Pentagon be made in the United States, compared to 50 percent under current law. The Senate version does not contain those restrictions, and the two bodies must work out a compromise over the next few months.

Mr. Robertson told the conference that the bill is protectionist and will make procurement of weapons systems more expensive. He says it will also impair cohesion within NATO by endangering major cooperative programs among the allies, such as the Joint Strike Fighter, a project that involves seven countries.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has already gone on record in opposition to the measure and has warned that he will urge President Bush to veto the bill, if the so-called "buy American" provision is not removed from it.

One of Mr. Rumsfeld's aides, Deputy Under-Secretary of Defense Lisa Bronson, was also present at the seminar. She said the "buy American" provision would deny U.S. forces critical technologies and capabilities that they can only obtain from non-U.S. sources.

Mr. Robertson also argued that protectionism in defense procurement by the United States can only hurt NATO's efforts to close the gap in military capabilities between Washington and its European allies. He said the bill, as it stands, will impair the coordination of NATO armed forces and encourage those who argue that Americans and Europeans should go their separate ways on military matters.

The NATO secretary-general has been calling on European nations to increase their defense budgets. But he has also exhorted the United States to open up its defense procurement process to allied firms, and relax controls on the transfer of weapons technology to Washington's NATO partners.

Although the meeting was held behind closed doors, reporters were given copies of the remarks by Mr. Robertson and Ms. Bronson.