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Robert Gates's Lonely Crusade

Author: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow
May 22, 2010
The Daily Beast

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A crusader image doesn't fit Robert Gates--the archetypal Midwesterner whose eyes and lips barely stir even in his most animated moments--but he is on a crusade to cut military spending. Well, it's not exactly to cut it; for the moment, he is seeking to reduce bloating and waste and to use those funds to maintain muscle. His proposed savings from fat are modest (around $15 billion in an over $700 billion budget for next year). He's also trying to prevent Congress from tacking on billions in unnecessary weapons systems. For now, Gates' crusade is really much less about money and much more about principles: Reduce military expenditures to lower federal deficits and help build the kind of vibrant economy necessary for military power. Take as much of the cuts as possible out of waste and “political” expenditures and put that toward preserving firepower. In sum, the Pentagon has to make tough decisions to help itself and the nation's economy.

The defense secretary has the best facts and the best arguments on his side. He's also playing the politics of the occasion just right--starting small, small enough just to make the point without rousing the lions of the military-industrial complex. Alas, it only takes the bare scent of challenge to rouse them, and they're roaring. And with just a few days to go before the Pentagon budget is reported out by the House and Senate committees, it looks as if Mr. Gates' noble crusade will garner little support on Capitol Hill. No matter how just the cause, Washington can't make a tough decision. It is broke financially and broken politically. The ding-dongers or tea baggers or whatever they are, are certainly right about that--but even they don't want to cut military outlays.

Mr. Gates has been invoking the famous words and warnings of former general and President Eisenhower to enhance his crusade. That name may cause goose bumps for my generation, but probably leaves cold most members of Congress, who think Ronald Reagan commanded the Allied forces during World War II. Nonetheless, Eisenhower is the right model.

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