Daniel W. Drezner

It’s been an interesting month for pluralism

When the U.S. government acts in ways that cut against powerful interest group pressures, it causes reporters and political scientists to sit up and take notice.  Last week it was financial regulation evolving in ways that seem contrary to Wall Street’s interests.  This week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have a speech at the Eisenhower ...

When the U.S. government acts in ways that cut against powerful interest group pressures, it causes reporters and political scientists to sit up and take notice. 

Last week it was financial regulation evolving in ways that seem contrary to Wall Street’s interests. 

This week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have a speech at the Eisenhower museum that fires a warning shot across the bow of defense contractors and the U.S. military: 

The attacks of September 11th, 2001, opened a gusher of defense spending that nearly doubled the base budget over the last decade, not counting supplemental appropriations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Which brings us to the situation we face and the choices we have today – as a defense department and as a country.  Given America’s difficult economic circumstances and parlous fiscal condition, military spending on things large and small can and should expect closer, harsher scrutiny.  The gusher has been turned off, and will stay off for a good period of time….

To be sure, changing the way we operate and achieving substantial savings will mean overcoming steep institutional and political challenges – many lying outside the five walls of the Pentagon.  For example, in this year’s budget submission the Department has asked to end funding for an unnecessary alternative engine for the new Joint Strike Fighter and for more C-17 cargo planes.  Study on top of study has shown that an extra fighter engine achieves marginal potential savings but heavy upfront costs – nearly $3 billion worth.  Multiple studies also show that the military has ample air-lift capacity to meet all current and feasible future needs.  The leadership of the Air Force is clear:  they do not need and cannot afford more C-17s.  Correspondingly, the Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy do not want the second F-35 engine.   Yet, as we speak, a battle is underway to keep the Congress from putting both of these programs back in the budget – at an unnecessary potential cost to the taxpayers of billions of dollars over the next few years.  I have strongly recommended a presidential veto if either program is included in next year’s defense budget legislation….

Therefore, as the Defense Department begins the process of preparing next’s years Fiscal Year 2012 budget request,  I am directing the military services, the joint staff, the major functional and regional commands, and the civilian side of the Pentagon to take a hard, unsparing look at how they operate – in substance and style alike.  The goal is to cut our overhead costs and to transfer those savings to force structure and modernization within the programmed budget.  In other words, to convert sufficient “tail” to “tooth” to provide the equivalent of the roughly two to three percent real growth – resources needed to sustain our combat power at a time of war and make investments to prepare for an uncertain future.  Simply taking a few percent off the top of everything on a one-time basis will not do.  These savings must stem from root-and-branch changes that can be sustained and added to over time.  

What is required going forward is not more study.  Nor do we need more legislation.  It is not a great mystery what needs to change.  What it takes is the political will and willingness, as Eisenhower possessed, to make hard choices – choices that will displease powerful people both inside the Pentagon and out.

Now, just because Gates is advocating some cutbacks in procurement and overhead doesn’t mean that will happen.  And the invocation of "political will" triggers Drezner’s First Law of Politics:  asking politicians to ‘exercise political will’ means asking them to stop acting like politicians.  So nothing of consequence might come from Gates’ cri de coeur

Still, if nothing else, the past month has seen frontal assaults on the most powerful, politically connected interests in the United States.  For a political scientist, these are very interesting times. 

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