Shadow Government

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What Gates’s program cuts tell us about Gates

Secretary Gates’s speech in Kansas sounds as though budget axes will be falling all over the Department of Defense. In an homage to Dwight Eisenhower, Secretary Gates said "what I find so compelling and instructive was the simple fact that when it came to defense matters, under Eisenhower real choices were made, priorities set, and ...

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Secretary Gates's speech in Kansas sounds as though budget axes will be falling all over the Department of Defense. In an homage to Dwight Eisenhower, Secretary Gates said "what I find so compelling and instructive was the simple fact that when it came to defense matters, under Eisenhower real choices were made, priorities set, and limits enforced." I'm in favor of cutting defense spending to help get America's fiscal house in order, and commend Secretary Gates for turning his attention to budgetary discipline.  

But both the Kansas speech, and the Naval Institute speech he delivered a week prior (in which he also questioned procurement programs), had an odd ring to them. You wouldn't know by listening to these speeches that Gates has had the ability these past three years to accomplish any of the work he deems essential. Neither he nor the administration has yet given us a strategy that defines what they believe the United States needs to do in the world, how our military activities fit into that broader framework, and what size and type of military we therefore need.  

President Eisenhower had a strategy for securing the international order at a price consistent with his overall objective of maintaining America's economic power. That strategy entailed racing to purchase intercontinental missiles armed with nuclear weapons to threaten complete destruction of the Soviet Union, pushing ahead protections for us against such missiles by enemies, substituting nuclear for conventional forces, preventing a Soviet conquest of Western Europe by using nuclear weapons on the territory of our allies, declining to fight peripheral wars -- even in support of our closest allies -- or assist liberation movements, engaging the CIA in overthrowing governments that trended communist and often replacing them with dictators.  

Secretary Gates’s speech in Kansas sounds as though budget axes will be falling all over the Department of Defense. In an homage to Dwight Eisenhower, Secretary Gates said "what I find so compelling and instructive was the simple fact that when it came to defense matters, under Eisenhower real choices were made, priorities set, and limits enforced." I’m in favor of cutting defense spending to help get America’s fiscal house in order, and commend Secretary Gates for turning his attention to budgetary discipline.  

But both the Kansas speech, and the Naval Institute speech he delivered a week prior (in which he also questioned procurement programs), had an odd ring to them. You wouldn’t know by listening to these speeches that Gates has had the ability these past three years to accomplish any of the work he deems essential. Neither he nor the administration has yet given us a strategy that defines what they believe the United States needs to do in the world, how our military activities fit into that broader framework, and what size and type of military we therefore need.  

President Eisenhower had a strategy for securing the international order at a price consistent with his overall objective of maintaining America’s economic power. That strategy entailed racing to purchase intercontinental missiles armed with nuclear weapons to threaten complete destruction of the Soviet Union, pushing ahead protections for us against such missiles by enemies, substituting nuclear for conventional forces, preventing a Soviet conquest of Western Europe by using nuclear weapons on the territory of our allies, declining to fight peripheral wars — even in support of our closest allies — or assist liberation movements, engaging the CIA in overthrowing governments that trended communist and often replacing them with dictators.  

It was a cost-effective strategy with some terrible consequences. But it accepted the risks and effects of its choices. In the Basic National Security Strategy, priorities were established, alternative means of achieving our objectives analyzed, cabinet secretaries debated the trade-offs and created a whole of government approach. In the National Security Council meeting notes from the BNSP reviews, on several occasions the secretary of the treasury refuses to support the strategy as unaffordable, and the president sent DOD back to find other ways to achieve the necessary national objectives.

What is President Obama’s strategy? We don’t actually know, since the president’s National Security Strategy has not yet been completed. What is Secretary Gates’s defense strategy? He just released a Quadrennial Defense Review that does not support his ringing call for tough cuts or give a sense of priorities to guide them; in fact, it largely endorses the current defense program. His budget speeches at the Naval Institute and in Kansas bear little if any relation to the QDR.

Gates’s Foreign Affairs article, published after the QDR was released, centers on "building partner capacity," by which he means training and equipping the militaries of other countries to fight threats we are worried about. Training foreign militaries is a useful tool, when those militaries support governments that share our interests. But numerous countries want, and even need, our help. How do we decide which ones will get the scarce resource of our effort? That requires a strategy.

It is simply not true, as Gates says, that "for the better part of two years I have focused on the Pentagon’s major weapons programs — to make sure we are buying the right things in the right quantities." For the better part of three years he has focused his effort almost exclusively on the wars we are fighting. Procurement reform was forced on him by the Congress. Gates has submitted three budgets that continued virtually every major program and gave no sense of the looming fiscal constraints he now clarions. He did not use his recent QDR to create the basis for a different approach.

Where he has spoken specifically to issues, his direction is often contradictory. So while taking care of service members and their families is a top priority, in his Kansas speech the cost of health care for service members was a major complaint. He complains about the incidentals — Congress funding a second jet engine for the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) — but does not consider the first-order question of whether manned aviation is a cost-effective means of bringing lethal force to bear for the kinds of wars our nation needs to win.

There has not in recent memory been a secretary of defense as much in command of the Department of Defense as Gates is now. But one would think from his Kansas speech that he had not been at the helm when the practices he criticizes occurred. For example he laments that that "the gap between me and an action officer may be as high as 30 layers," and yet he has the ability to change that at the stroke of a pen. He simply has not turned his attention to it.  

Secretary Gates is right to assert that "we need to evaluate the criteria upon which requirements are based and the wider real world context." I just wish he would do so.

Kori Schake is the director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a former U.S. government official in foreign and security policy, and the author of America vs the West: Can the Liberal World Order Be Preserved? Twitter: @KoriSchake

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