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The next president and his secretary of defense will be the first to inherit a war in 40 years. They will face tough decisions on Iraq and on big-ticket items like ships and aircraft. NPR's Tom Bowman sat down with two men who are advising the presumptive nominees. Each stands to be the next defense secretary. Former Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage, and former Navy Secretary, Richard Danzig.

TOM BOWMAN: One thing these advisers agree on, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has done a pretty good job. They'd both like to pick up where Gates left off. Here's John McCain confidante, Richard Armitage.

Mr. RICHARD ARMITAGE (Former Deputy Secretary of State): We'd find a Pentagon which was continuing what Secretary Gates just started recently, and that is accountability. It's about time we got accountability throughout the government.

BOWMAN: Accountability - Armitage means Gates' recent decision to fire the Air Force leadership over mishaps involving its nuclear weapons arsenal.

Mr. RICHARD DANZIG (Former Navy Secretary): We've really had, in recent years, two Pentagons - one Secretary Rumsfeld and one Secretary Gates.

BOWMAN: That's Obama adviser Richard Danzig. He says Rumsfeld's Pentagon didn't always listen to the military brass on such issues as the need for more troops in Iraq.

Mr. DANZIG: Secretary Gates has moved it, to some degree, back towards a more consultative organization, where there's more respect for military opinion. I think an Obama administration would go even further.

BOWMAN: The two advisors couldn't be more different in substance or style. Danzig practiced international law. He's a Rhodes Scholar with a thoughtful nature of an Oxford don. He spent the last several years studying terrorism, even interviewing members of the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo in prison. He slouches on a sofa in a living room crammed with books - the poetry of E.E. Cummings, the works of Dickens and Joseph Conrad. Danzig wants more American soldiers to learn foreign languages and cultures. He recalls a conversation in Afghanistan where an American officer said he'd give up a company of soldiers for an agricultural expert. National security in recent years has been too militarized, says the Obama campaign. There need to be more alternatives, like American aid and diplomacy, to the force of arms.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): Because the real commander-in-chief threshold doesn't have to do with years tallied up in Washington, it has to do with the judgment and vision that you will bring to the Oval Office.

BOWMAN: By contrast, Armitage is a blunt and forceful man with a shaved head. A Vietnam combat veteran who lifts weights and runs an international consulting company. Armitage and McCain share a bond of military service and an earthy sense of America's fighting prowess.

Mr. ARMITAGE: Not withstanding high tech weapon systems, it's only an infantryman with a bayonet who can take and hold ground and bend an enemy to our will.

BOWMAN: And it's that infantryman, or rather 150,000 of them currently holding ground in Iraq, that separates McCain and Obama more than anything else. Obama wants to remove one or two American brigades each month so all combat troops will be out in 18 months. Danzig says reducing U.S. troops would spur the Iraqis to finally settle their political differences.

Mr. DANZIG: Our desire is that that would be a catalyst for the Iraqis that would cause them then to respond.

BOWMAN: Armitage argues that pulling out American troops too quickly, could have the opposite affect. Every man for himself, as Armitage puts it, more sectarian violence.

Mr. ARMITAGE: Senator McCain has never found some celestial calendars to be a good way to determine whether one ought to draw down or not. The situation on the ground is the way you determine it.

BOWMAN: McCain says the Iraqi troops are coming along and Armitage says American commanders will soon determine whether more U.S. combat troops can come home.

Mr. ARMITAGE: We're going to be known as well for how we leave Iraq, as for how we got into it.

BOWMAN: Even if a President Obama withdrawals combat troops from Iraq, he says some American soldiers will have to remain to protect diplomats, train Iraqis, go after al-Qaeda in Iraq. Again, Richard Danzig.

Mr. DANZIG: You could expect that there'd be tens of thousands of U.S. troops still remaining after you withdrew combat brigades, numbers like that.

BOWMAN: Numbers are what a McCain Pentagon would focus on, dollar numbers. For years, McCain has complained about bloated Pentagon weapons budgets. It's an issue where Armitage and Danzig seem to find common ground. Armitage says a McCain Pentagon would insist on swifter decisions and the willingness to forego certain weapon systems. Danzig agrees that hard choices and deep Pentagon cuts will be necessary. And as another point of agreement, with a new president next year, thousands of more American troops should be heading to Afghanistan to fight a resurgent Taliban.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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