In his four years at the helm, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has fired scores of underperforming generals, helped turn the tide in Iraq, and persuaded a reluctant President Obama to double down on the flagging war in Afghanistan.
But Gates has finally come up against an enemy he cannot overcome: the nation’s worsening fiscal picture, which has forced the Defense chief to accept budget cuts he once vowed to resist.
The about-face was an important, but little-noticed, aspect of Gates’s press conference on Thursday, where he announced $78 billion in Pentagon budget cuts over the next five years. In addition to the outright funding reductions, the secretary also announced plans to free up $100 billion for reinvestment elsewhere within the Pentagon by eliminating weapons systems such as the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle.
Defense and other administration officials had said in recent interviews that Gates was locked in a fairly fierce debate with the White House over the size of the Pentagon’s budget. Last year, the Pentagon projected its fiscal year 2012 budget would be $566 billion, or about 3 percent above its 2011 budget of $549 billion.
In recent weeks, according to people familiar with the matter, the Office of Management and Budget told Gates to cut that figure by $20 billion. Gates made several personal appeals to the White House to reverse or shrink the reduction. In the end, the White House agreed to give the Pentagon $553 billion next year, which means the department’s budget will grow by less than 1 percent, one of the smallest increases since the start of the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
That is precisely the type of minimal budget growth the Defense chief used to routinely – and vocally – warn against.
In April 2009, for instance, Gates told a crowd at the Navy War College that the United States needed to avoid repeating its historical pattern of slashing military spending as wars wind down.
“Every time we have come to the end of a conflict, somehow we have persuaded ourselves that the nature of mankind and the nature of the world have changed on an enduring basis, and so we have dismantled our military and intelligence capabilities,” he said at the time. “My hope is that as we wind down in Iraq and whatever the level of our commitment in Afghanistan, that we not forget the basic nature of humankind has not changed.”
Last August, meanwhile, Gates said, “Pressure will undoubtedly be great to repeat that mistake and to reduce our spending on defense.”
On Thursday, however, Gates said that the nation’s darkening fiscal picture meant that the Defense Department budget wouldn’t be able to grow as much as he once felt that it needed to – and would instead flatline within the next couple of years.
“Ever since taking this post, now more than four years ago, I have called for protecting force structure and for maintaining modest but real growth in the Defense top line over the long term,” he said. “I would prefer that continue to be the case. But this country’s dire fiscal situation – and the threat it poses to America’s influence and credibility around the world – will only get worse unless the U.S. government gets its finances in order.”
The Pentagon, the secretary added, “cannot presume to exempt itself from the scrutiny and pressure faced by the rest of the government.” Paradoxically, there is a real prospect that the budget cuts that Gates announced will be just big enough to outrage many pro-military lawmakers and just small enough to anger deficit hawks pressing for much deeper cuts.
In a sign of that discord, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., released a blistering statement on Thursday deriding the proposed cuts as “dangerous.”
“I will not stand idly by and watch the White House gut defense,” he said.
On the other side of the spectrum, an array of think-tank analysts have published detailed monographs in recent weeks calling for far deeper spending cuts. A new report by Gordon Adams and Matthew Leatherman of American University’s Stimson Center called for reducing the military budget by 14 percent over the next seven years and thinning the active-duty military by 275,000.
Gates, whose placid and soft-spoken manner hides an occasionally acerbic wit, expressed little patience for such recommendations.
“As far as I’m concerned,” he said at the end of Thursday’s lengthy news conference, “that’s math, not strategy.”
— By Yochi J. Dreazen – National Journal – January 7, 2011