WASHINGTON, Nov 3 (Reuters) - A Republican lawmaker who is expected to play a central role in setting U.S. military policy in the new Republican-led Congress said on Wednesday he wanted to boost defense spending but would not alter President Barack Obama’s deadline to start pulling out of Afghanistan.
In a telephone interview with Reuters, Representative Howard “Buck” McKeon, expected to become the next chair of the House Armed Services Committee, also balked at Obama’s plans to push through a repeal of the military’s ban on gays before the new Congress takes power in January.
Following is a transcript of his remarks, with questions abbreviated for brevity. A full story can be seen at [ID:nN03130866].
Reuters: Should there be any changes to Obama’s July 2011 deadline to start withdrawing from Afghanistan?
McKeon: My problem with the deadline was if it was done, period. Because I thought that undermined us with some of our NATO allies and with the people in Afghanistan and it gave a talking point to the Taliban to say: “Hey, they’re going to be gone anyway. We’ll just wait them out. And if you help them (U.S. forces) out, remember we’re going to be here.” So the damage is done.
“What I think we need to focus on is whenever the Secretary or the commanders would come up to testify, they all have said it would be based on conditions on the ground. So I’ve also been reading (Bob Woodward’s book) “Obama’s Wars” ... and I get the feeling some of the things that came out of their meetings are a little bit different than what we’ve heard. So, I think we just want to be very careful that this isn’t used as an opportunity to pull everybody out and leave the Afghans hanging and leave the potential for al Qaeda to come back in for another safehaven.
Reuters: But the actual deadline itself, you’re not going to press for that to be changed?
McKeon: No. I think that’s installed.”
Reuters: On Pakistan, will the House press for more pressure to be put on Islamabad to crack down on militants than has been done over the past two years?
McKeon: Well, I think actually they’ve done quite a bit. We’ve made some pretty good progress there. But I don’t think you solve Afghanistan if you don’t solve Pakistan. So it’s a package deal and I think we need to be focus on, everybody needs to understand that. That all they have to do is go across the border into Pakistan and it’s ‘Olly, Olly Oxen Free.’ We’ve been able to put pressure on ... I think that all we have to do is just make sure that we keep the pressure on and understand that we have to win in both places.
ALTERNATE ENGINE FOR F-35
Reuters: Do you expect to be in a stronger position now to argue in favor of an alternate engine for the F-35 now that you have control of the House?
McKeon: Well, I hope so. But that hasn’t been a partisan position. I mean, the committee supported it. We have it in our mark. And that’s more of an issue probably between appropriators or with the Senate. So I think we will continue to push for it because we think it’s the better of the options.
Reuters: So you really don’t necessarily there will be any big change that would change the administration’s position?
McKeon: Well, I never have felt that the president would really veto a bill based on that issue. You know, we have a history of having two engines. They’re saying in the short run it costs more money. But the things that we’ve looked at in the long run, we think the competition is good and probably will result in savings. Plus it’s a safety issue, if one engine goes down and all you have is that engine, you’re in big trouble.
(General Electric Co (GE.N) and Britain’s Rolls Royce (RR.L) engine are developing an alternate to the engine being built by United Technologies Corp (UTX.N) unit Pratt & Whitney.)
‘DON’T ASK, DON’T TELL’
Reuters: President Obama said in his news conference he may push for a repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, ‘Don’t Tell’ during the lame duck session of Congress. What are your feelings on this?
McKeon: I think that’s unwise. You know, we had a process in place. We have a study that has been undertaken. People have been hired, they have done a lot of interviews. I have not seen the study yet. It was supposed to come back in December. Now, I really would like to see that before any effort is made to push this thing through. I think that something as disruptive as that could potentially be in the military, and figuring all of these people that have lost their elections that would be making that kind of a decision, I just think that’s not a wise (move)... Because I think the only reason they’re trying to do it is political. And I don’t think the military should be used as a political football.”
Reuters: Do you believe there is a need for a greater increase in overall defense spending?
McKeon: We’re spending less than at times in the past and we’re involved in two wars, as a percentage of our gross product. So I think, myself, I think you have to be very careful of the taxpayer dollar and I think the things the Secretary (of Defense) is pushing for with increased savings through efficiency. I support that. But I also support a higher top line because we have underlying costs that are taking such a high percentage of our budget that we’re not going to have enough to do the R&D and do the weaponry spending to provide the wherewithal to have the defense that we need. So, you know, they cut back in missile defense. They cut back in the F-22. They cut back in the next generation bomber. All these things for the future, and we can’t wait for the future to come. We need to be prepared for it. So, I think we need more money in defense and I think we need to do a better job spending that money.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Jackie Frank)