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NATO meeting: Chuck Hagel misses his debutant ball

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A vote on Hagel is now expected next week – but not before the political wrangling that forced Panetta to make a last trip as Pentagon chief.

Before Panetta’s meetings at NATO Thursday and Friday, Pentagon press secretary George Little told reporters in Brussels that Panetta would warn his NATO counterparts that across-the-board US spending cuts set to take effect March 1 will affect American military readiness and US contributions to the alliance.

“Put all of this together, [and] US lack of readiness equals NATO lack of readiness,” Mr. Little said.

But Panetta’s message is very likely overstated and may be counterproductive if it alarms Europeans into thinking the United States is becoming an unreliable and domestically preoccupied ally, some defense analysts say.

“He has to be careful, because he could leave them saying, ‘Oh my goodness, we really can’t count on them anymore,’ ” says Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official now at the Center for American Progress in Washington. Too much “sky is falling” talk from the Pentagon could suggest the US is “at risk of becoming a second-rate military power with these cuts, when that’s just not the case,” he says.

Others recall former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s valedictory remarks to NATO allies in 2011, when he told them they must either do more to pull their own defense weight or risk a “dim future” for the transatlantic alliance. What Panetta may be up to, they say, is to reinforce Gates’s words by suggesting that with US defense spending going down, the Europeans really have no choice but to reverse their falling defense spending.

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