On May 8, the Eisenhower Library marked the 65th anniversary of the allied victory in Europe. Sectary of Defense Robert Gates was on hand to address the crowd, and used the occasion to challengeboth, the Pentagon and Congress, to take a hard look at how the U.S. defends itself.
Gates explained that the WWII anniversary was not what he was there to discuss. “Instead, I’d like to discuss the approach [Eisenhower] took, and especially the choices he made…,” Gates said.
Choices that played a major role in keeping America safe, prosperous, and free for nearly six decades. Choices that, …, can inform greatly the dilemmas we face today in providing for – and paying for – our national defense.
Among the dilemmas Gates was referring to is the disproportional amount of the U.S. Federal Budget presently allocated to its national defense: 23 per-cent of Federal spending in 2009, $782 Billion, nearly the combined total of military spending by all other nations.
It was appropriate, then, for Gates to make his speech at the Kansas library dedicated to former U.S. President and military icon, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Indeed, Gates professed his admiration for the venue’s namesake, holding up Ike’s management of the military budget during his two terms as a model to emulate, going forward.
From Gates’ May 8 remarks:
Eisenhower was wary of seeing his beloved republic turn into a muscle-bound, garrison state – militarily strong, but economically stagnant and strategically insolvent. He once warned that “we must not destroy from within what we are trying to defend from without.” This fueled his passionate belief that the U.S. should spend as much as necessary on national defense – but not one penny more. And with his peerless credentials and standing, he was uniquely positioned to ask hard questions, make tough choices, and set firm limits.
Due to present economic realities, Gates said, the status quo of how the Pentagon does its business is “unsustainable.” Gates repeatedly invoked Eisenhower as he laid out his prescriptions for bringing defense spending under control.
Gates mentioned his own personal effort in assessing the necessity of all major weapons systems and setting procurement limits over the last year. “The gusher of defense spending” following Sept. 11, 2001, “has been turned off, and will stay off for a good period of time,” Gates said.
The changes we have made in the procurement arena represent an important start. But only a start… The Defense Department must take a hard look at every aspect of how it is organized, staffed, and operated – indeed, every aspect of how it does business. In each instance we must ask: First, is this respectful of the American taxpayer at a time of economic and fiscal duress? And second, is this activity or arrangement the best use of limited dollars, given the pressing needs to take care of our people, win the wars we are in, and invest in the capabilities necessary to deal with the most likely and lethal future threats?
Specifically for the Pentagon, Gates “hard look” is focused upon the enormous overhead associated with military bureaucracy which has only grown more bloated since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Stressing that the Pentagon, limited by the military’s present level of engagement, can’t make the necessary cuts on its own, Gates also challenged Congress to honor the Defense Department’s request to cease funding for an “alternative engine for the new Joint Strike Fighter and for more C-17 cargo planes…” Gates stated he’d already encouraged president Obama to veto any budget proposal containing either program.
He also solicited lawmakers’ resolve in honoring the DoD’s desire for “modest increases in premiums and co-pays” for TRICARE, the military health insurance program. “Leaving aside the sacred obligation we have to America’s wounded warriors, health-care costs are eating the Defense Department alive…”
Gates acknowledged that these savings proposals will be met with stiff institutional resistance. Lawmakers are loath to cut programs that bring money and jobs to their districts and have reacted adversely to previous TRICARE rate hikes. “It is not a great mystery what needs to change,” Gates said.
“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.”
Personally, I think Gate’s remarks were long overdue. The ballooning of military spending since the Eisenhower days, until recent years, was a function of the Cold War. I’m curious, though, how it will be received considering, as I’ve stated previously, that a Cold War mentality continues to persist among lawmakers as well as large segments of the American population.
Certainly, Gates was cognizant of it, referring in his speech to Eisenhower as a “cold warrior” only once. He made no mention of the Cold War, itself; instead, Gates spoke of “the long peace,” a phrase coined by historian John Lewis Gaddis.
I found Gates’ historical angle to be particularly appealing. After all, it was Eisenhower who warned of our present predicament upon the completion of his second term as president (see video below). Now Gates is attempting to bring a measure of sanity to what grew out of the failure of Ike’s predecessors to heed his warning.