JACKI LYDEN, host:
We turn now to the commander in chief of the Minnesota National Guard, Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty. Welcome, Governor.
Governor TIM PAWLENTY (Republican, Minnesota): Thank you, Jacki. It's good to be with you.
LYDEN: As we just pointed out, you are in fact the commander in chief of the Minnesota National Guard, yet I understand the extension of the Guard's tour in Iraq came as a surprise to you.
Gov. PAWLENTY: Well, yes. And of course governors serve as the commanders in chief of their National Guards for the state missions, the natural disasters and the like, but once they get called to federal duty, they're under the command of the U.S. president. And in this case, our National Guard was extended from what was going to be a March return home date after having been in Iraq one year to some time this summer. So that's disappointing and I'm sure frustrating for them. But I also know they're courageous and they'll finish their mission with great excellence.
LYDEN: Some of the state's politicians said it was frustrating for them as well. What did you say to the Pentagon?
Gov. PAWLENTY: Well, you know, these folks had trained up for six months in Mississippi and then have been boots on the ground in Iraq for a year, and the expectation had been created that they would be coming home in March. And so you can imagine yourself being in Iraq, counting down the days on the calendar, and then of course being told you're going to be extended.
Certainly the federal government has the right to do what they did, but it's mismatched expectations and a disappointment and we conveyed to the Pentagon, of course, that has an impact on morale and, you know, the ability to recruit and retain people in the future. And so you want to try to match expectations like in the rest of life; otherwise you're going to have disappointed people.
LYDEN: I just answered that in January, earlier this month, you sent a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Gov. PAWLENTY: I did, yes.
LYDEN: What did you say?
Gov. PAWLENTY: Well, in the letter we sent to Secretary Gates, we asked for hazardous duty pay or extraordinary duty pay for our members of the Minnesota National Guard. That's happened in some other cases where Guard members have had their tours of duty extended, and we've heard since we sent the letter that they would most likely qualify.
Now, it doesn't take away their disappointment, but it does get them some extra money.
LYDEN: Since the extension of the National Guard brigade was announced, Governor Pawlenty, you and Democratic members of the state legislature have also proposed a bill in Minnesota to give additional benefits to the Guard, beyond what their federal benefits will be. Are you confident this will pass and could you tell us a little bit about it?
Gov. PAWLENTY: Well, we have a very aggressive and I think appropriate proposal for our Minnesota National Guard members in Minnesota. We are offering to exempt from taxation all of their wages and earnings as members, not just the National Guard but any member of the military in Minnesota, if you're a Minnesota resident.
We also have a state-based G.I. bill. As you know, there's a federal G.I. bill but in some cases there's a gap and it doesn't fully cover educational benefits, so we're back-filling some of that and saying we'll fully cover those expenses or give a benefit on top of the federal benefit.
And then there's a whole array of other veteran support services and programs in Minnesota that we're proposing to dramatically beef up as well.
LYDEN: Governor Pawlenty, you're heading up the John McCain presidential exploratory committee in Minnesota. Do you share Senator McCain's support for the surge, as it's called, the escalation of additional troops in Iraq?
Gov. PAWLENTY: Well, I think the surge is belated. You know, obviously, particularly in Baghdad, the situation has drifted towards civil war or sectarian violence at a level that's very, very concerning and challenging.
Senator McCain argued many years ago, or years ago, for a bigger surge before the situation had deteriorated further. I think if you look at the options in the Middle East, we're choosing from difficult and problematic options.
I think the surge is belated, candidly. I think it should've happened a year ago or two years ago or three years ago.
LYDEN: If I could just draw you out a bit. You talk about the surge being too late. Well, some people would say perhaps too little, too late. I mean, you say that you supported it several years ago, but it's going on now. So what about the fact of 21,500 U.S. troops now? Is that something that you can get behind?
Gov. PAWLENTY: Yeah, the decision's been made, and it's going to happen. It is happening. So I hope all of us can focus on how can we support the troops and send the message that, you know, regardless of the debate going on Washington, we're with them. We stand with the troops.
LYDEN: What are you hearing from your constituents?
Gov. PAWLENTY: You know, in Minnesota - and I think in states probably in the upper Midwest and in the Northeast and probably other big parts of the country - the war is unpopular. But you know, the president attempted in the State of the State, I think for - and he hasn't been as frequent in this as I would like - to point out what's the consequence of withdrawing, and there are very, very horrific scenarios that are probable or likely or possible if the United States prematurely withdraws from Iraq and leaves it in a destabilized condition, probably then igniting not just a full-blown civil war in Iraq but larger regional conflicts in a way that could draw the United States back into a much bigger and much more problematic situation.
LYDEN: Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota. Thanks very much, governor.
Gov. PAWLENTY: You're very welcome. Bye-bye.