CIA director Leon Panetta soon will become secretary of defense, taking over Washington's largest and most powerful bureaucracy with a budget that amounts to nearly 60 percent of discretionary federal spending. He will be stepping into the shoes of the most influential member of the Obama administration, Robert M. Gates, who has been canonized for his performance over the past five years.
For the past two months, however, Secretary of Defense Gates has been on a farewell tour of US think tanks, universities and military academies, advocating policies that will make Panetta's job extremely difficult.
In 2006, Secretary of Defense Gates had easy shoes to fill. His predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, had become unpopular in the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and even in the White House. Rumsfeld was particularly uncivil in dealings with subordinates. The confirmation process for Gates was not a grilling, but a love fest. He faced no questions about his politicization of intelligence at the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1980s; his knowledge of Iran-contra, which was documented in the independent counsel's investigation; or his lack of experience on vital matters such as weapons acquisition and the need for military reform.
To key members of the Senate, particularly members of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, Gates was the "morning-after" pill who would abort Don Rumsfeld. They had forgotten Gates, the cold war ideologue who had suppressed objective intelligence in order to advocate for policy.
Recently, Gates has been on a duplicitous one-man mission that will complicate the Obama administration's efforts to withdraw forces from Iraq and Afghanistan and make significant cuts in the defense budget. On the one hand, he concedes that the military budget is bloated, winning praise for his toughness. On the other hand, he fights actual reductions, winning the praise of the military.
At Kansas State University in 2009, Gates became the first secretary of defense to acknowledge that the United States was spending too much on defense and needed to spend more on diplomacy. But soon after, he gave a blunt "no" to the idea of transferring funds to the State Department from the budget of the Defense Department, which is more than ten times the budget for diplomacy. At the Eisenhower library in May 2010, Gates proclaimed that the massive federal deficit required an examination of the "gusher" of defense spending. In May 2011, however, at the American Enterprise Institute, Gates emphasized that defense spending did not contribute to the deficit and should not be a part of any deficit-reduction program.
Gates has argued successfully for annual increases in defense spending, which has climbed to nearly $690 billion, exceeding the total cost of defense spending in the rest of the world. (The mainstream media consistently refers to a 2012 defense budget of $553 billion, but this figure does not include $118 billion for military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya and $18 billion for nuclear weapons programs.)
Secretary of Defense Gates has been particularly devious about his claims of achieving savings in weapons procurement. He takes credit for cutting $300 billion in spending on defense programs and eliminating waste in the amount of $178 billion. But the $300 billion in savings was garnered from platforms, such as the F-22, that were eliminated, or programs, such as the Army's Future Combat System, that were canceled. These so-called savings were invested in other programs, however, and not returned to the Treasury. Gates asked the annual Navy League convention in 2010 why the Navy needed 11 carrier battle groups; he then gave an emphatic "no" in Congressional testimony to the possibility of eliminating even one carrier battle group.
On his farewell tour of college campuses and right-wing think tanks, Gates consistently warned against reducing defense spending to the levels recommended by President Obama and his deficit commission. Gates made "false comparisons" to reductions after the Korean and Vietnam Wars as well as those made at the end of the cold war. He never mentioned that the "hollow force" that he described at the end of the cold war managed to win the 1991 Iraqi war in less than three weeks, and evicted the Taliban government and al-Qaeda from Afghanistan in 2001 in less than a month.
Gates' recent advocacy will complicate the tasks of his successor. These tasks include completing the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, beginning the withdrawal from Afghanistan, significantly reducing the defense budget and reforming the Pentagon's weapons acquisition process. In recent weeks, however, he has traveled to Baghdad and Kabul; in both capitals he contradicted the positions taken by President Obama, calling for a continued US presence in Iraq, a token withdrawal from Afghanistan and no cuts in the defense budget. Now, Panetta will have to grapple with the challenge of tying strategy to force plans and bringing the budget back into balance with current resources.
Gates favors a continuation of current force levels in Afghanistan in order to move the Taliban to the negotiating table. He ignores the fact that the Taliban has demonstrated limited if any interest in negotiations. He chooses to ignore the signing of an unprecedented accord at the White House in November 2009 that committed the Obama team to significant withdrawals from Afghanistan. President Obama prepared this unusual "Terms Sheet" to ensure that the principals would honor the "conditions for accelerated transition" to Afghan authorities in July 2011. The document was designed both to limit the ability of the Pentagon to drag its heels on withdrawal and to reduce the power and influence of the uniformed military. Panetta, having been undercut by Gates, will have to deal with continuing tension between the White House and the uniformed military on troop withdrawals.
In his lectures at Notre Dame University and the American Enterprise Institute in May, Gates warned against any freeze in defense spending, leaving Panetta to deal with procurement policies and military missions that the United States can no longer afford. As the former director of the Office of Management and Budget, Panetta presumably understands that the United States, with less than 25 percent of the world's economic output and more than 50 percent of the world's military expenditures, will have to curtail certain weapons and missions. The defense budget has grown over 50 percent in the past ten years and now exceeds the pace of spending of the cold war era as well as the peacetime buildup of President Ronald Reagan.
Gates has left Panetta with the task of shaping deployment plans. A re-examination of current troop deployments must include the tens of thousands of US troops stationed in Europe and Asia, more than six decades after the end of World War II; hundreds of bases and facilities the world over; and excessive US willingness to project power in areas such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya where vital national interests are not at stake. The United States also needs to abandon the chimera of national missile defense at home and the need for a regional missile defense in East Europe.
Panetta will have to reform the weapons acquisition process that Gates has ignored for the past five years. This process has been beset with military mismanagement, huge cost overruns and little Congressional scrutiny. Gates, who labels himself a cost cutter, will leave the Pentagon with more defense acquisition programs at a greater cost than those existing at the time he become the Obama administration's secretary of defense.
Panetta will have to deal with increasingly expensive (and some even dubious) weapons systems such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a new class of ballistic missile submarine and a new fleet of aerial refueling tankers for the Air Force. The Marines want a new amphibious vehicle even though they haven't conducted an amphibious landing since 1951. Gates calls all these systems "absolutely critical" for the nation's defense, but these weapons no longer reflect a balance between cost effectiveness and our national security.
Fifty years after President Dwight D. Eisenhower's warning about the "military-industrial complex," it is time to address the "undue influence" of the Pentagon and the "misplaced power" of the military-industrial-Congressional lobby.