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Gates confronts Ike’s wisdom about the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable May 7, 2010

Posted by Matthew Leatherman in Analysis.
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By Dr. Gordon Adams and Matthew Leatherman

The United States today finds itself spending more on defense than it has since General Dwight D. Eisenhower left occupied Germany, even after adjusting for inflation.  The $693 billion we will spend on the Pentagon this year more than doubles what we spent in 2002.  Neither the threat of Korean dominoes falling to Red China, of humbling loss of credibility in Vietnam, or of arms racing toward the Cold War finish line has pushed us to spend more than we have fighting Osama bin Laden and his network of ideologically and financially bankrupt cronies.

Tomorrow Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will speak in the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Kansas to address issues of political will and the defense budget. His choice of location invokes Eisenhower’s farewell address, including his pointed warning to the country against relentless spending in pursuit of unattainable, perfect security.

Gates’ decision to step into Eisenhower’s shadow represents a glimmer of hope that our country will submit to this counsel.  Regrettably, however, present circumstances far overshadow that hope.

In the past we had a clearer view of our priorities. Nuclear-tipped ICBMs had a way of imposing priorities during the Cold War.  Today, the Pentagon is all over the map, literally and figuratively.

The Quadrennial Defense Review released in February says the Department has given priority to current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  In reality, it does no such thing. Instead, the QDR priorities can accurately be summarized as ‘everything:’ “prevail in today’s wars; prevent and deter conflict; prepare to succeed in a wide range of contingencies, both near- and long- term; and preserve and enhance the force.”  By trying to be all things to all people, the document ultimately makes everything a priority.

Budgeting is policy, moreover, and the Pentagon’s budget request for next year ticks every mark the QDR set down, with no tough choices and at great expense.  Near term spending ostensibly for the requirements of the war continues to grow.  Layered in on top is long-term spending on new attack submarines, as well as on new Army vehicles that consume the savings reaped by cancelling the old version last year.  Most richly, the Pentagon continues to buy an amphibious assault vehicle suited only to Eisenhower’s D-Day planning while also preparing to buy next-generation bombers inspired by the Eisenhower-era strategy of mutually assured destruction.

Faced with extraordinary deficits, debt and financial turmoil, we simply cannot afford the nearly three-quarter trillion dollar defense budget requested for next year.  Defense spending must contribute – just as every other part of government spending must – to a new-found fiscal discipline so that, in Eisenhower’s words, democracy can “survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.”

Step one is for Congress to stop treating Pentagon statements as received wisdom and start setting the parameters of fiscal discipline.  Subjecting defense spending to the same three-year budget freeze imposed by President Obama and the Senate budget resolution on the rest of the discretionary budget would be a valuable and equitable start.

Step two would be for Secretary Gates to seize the mantle of Eisenhower’s farewell address in tomorrow’s speech and set real priorities.  Doing so requires more than canceling a few symbolic programs and firing some particularly derelict program managers.  It requires setting mission priorities that tell the Pentagon both what it does and what it doesn’t do – and then changing the budget accordingly.

By Secretary Gates’ own admission, “At most, 10 percent of that $190 billion [2011 procurement request] is dedicated exclusively to equipment optimized for counterinsurgency, security assistance, humanitarian operations, or other so-called low-end capabilities.”  Instead, procurement spending is driven by the future requirements of anti-access warfare, a polite way of saying ‘getting ready to fight China’ or, more generally, making sure we can deploy our military at will when and where we wish.

Defense spending should reflect a closer and more realistic look at our current military dominance, excessive spending, and the true costs of addressing the challenges we do face. It is time that we start applying President Eisenhower’s counsel to our era rather than trying to fight the wars from his.  We must favor what is necessary over what is desirable. Let us hope that, by choosing tomorrow’s topic and venue, Secretary Gates is signaling that the administration plans to show new leadership in this direction.

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