Getting Out The Old Ouija Board To Summon Father Eisenhower

John Hudson at The Atlantic with the round-up. Hudson:

In Dwight Eisenhower’s landmark 1961 farewell speech, he warned about a “disastrous rise of misplaced power” in America’s so-called military-industrial complex. Almost 50 years later, Defense Secretary Robert Gates is now hearkening back to those words. Speaking at the Eisenhower Library, Gates said “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.” He rattled off a laundry-list of defense projects meant to exemplify Pentagon excess, including Boeing Super Hornet fighter jets, skyrocketing health care costs for military personnel, and the possession of 11 aircraft carriers.

Robert Gates (the speech at

Yet, during his presidency, Eisenhower resisted pressure to intervene militarily in Vietnam and in the Middle East.  This restraint wasn’t just a true soldier’s hatred of war, and all of its attendant costs and horrors.  It came in no small part from an understanding that even a superpower such as the United States – then near the zenith of its strength and prosperity relative to the rest of the world – did not have unlimited political, economic and military resources.  Expending them in one area – say a protracted war in the developing world – would sap the strength available to do anything else.

Furthermore, Eisenhower strongly believed that the United States – indeed, any nation – could only be as militarily strong as it was economically dynamic and fiscally sound.  He lamented the cost of a large standing defense establishment maintained at a high level of readiness.  As he put it so memorably at the end of his presidency: “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience…We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications.”

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.

Thanks to the archives of this library, we have first-hand documentary insight into how probing (and ruthless) this five-star general could be when it came to forcing the military establishment to justify its programs and priorities.  Consider an account of just one White House meeting in March 1956.   Eisenhower sat down with his top defense advisors to discuss the Pentagon budget.  The meeting notes show Eisenhower becoming exasperated that [QUOTE] “no one ever comes up to him and says ‘let’s get rid of something.’”  He then observed that it took the Army 50 years to get rid of horses.  Ike questioned why the new Navy missiles cost so much more than the weapons they replaced and queried why the Army should have a 1500-mile ballistic missile program, since, in his words, “the Army does not have the equipment to see where they are hitting.”

Eisenhower told his senior defense team that he wanted the Pentagon cut down to a [QUOTE] “Spartan basis,” lamenting that “people he had known all his life were asking for more and more.”  He went on to say:  “I say the patriot today is the fellow who can do the job with less money.”

Time and again, whenever Eisenhower was asked to fund something his response usually took the form of a question:  where is the money going to come from, and what will the military cut in its place?   The other question was priorities.  In a meeting with defense officials earlier in his presidency, Eisenhower said he was troubled by the tendency to “pile program on program” to meet every possible contingency.

Looking back from today’s vantage point, 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.  This became increasingly rare in the decades that followed, despite the best efforts of some of my predecessors and other attempts at reform over the years.

The attacks of September 11th, 2001, opened a gusher of defense spending that nearly doubled the base budget over the last decade, not counting supplemental appropriations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Which brings us to the situation we face and the choices we have today – as a defense department and as a country.  Given America’s difficult economic circumstances and parlous fiscal condition, military spending on things large and small can and should expect closer, harsher scrutiny.  The gusher has been turned off, and will stay off for a good period of time.

On one level it’s a simple matter of math.  The fact that we are a nation at war and facing an uncertain world, I believe, calls for sustaining the current military force structure – Army brigades, Marine regiments, Air Force wings, Navy ships.  This typically requires regular real growth in the defense budget ranging from two and three percent above inflation.  In this year’s budget request, the Defense Department asked for, and I hope will receive, just under two percent – roughly that level of growth.  But, realistically, it is highly unlikely that we will achieve the real growth rates necessary to sustain the current force structure.

Some argue that the answer is to simply press harder for a bigger overall budget.  They point out that defense spending today as a function of gross domestic product – roughly four and a half percent – is relatively small in historical terms at a time of war – just over half of the average during Eisenhower’s administration.  They would be right, and I don’t hesitate to make that point during my trips to Capitol Hill during budget season.  But today we face a very different set of American economic and fiscal realities.

To be sure, changing the way we operate and achieving substantial savings will mean overcoming steep institutional and political challenges – many lying outside the five walls of the Pentagon.  For example, in this year’s budget submission the Department has asked to end funding for an unnecessary alternative engine for the new Joint Strike Fighter and for more C-17 cargo planes.  Study on top of study has shown that an extra fighter engine achieves marginal potential savings but heavy upfront costs – nearly $3 billion worth.  Multiple studies also show that the military has ample air-lift capacity to meet all current and feasible future needs.  The leadership of the Air Force is clear:  they do not need and cannot afford more C-17s.  Correspondingly, the Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy do not want the second F-35 engine.   Yet, as we speak, a battle is underway to keep the Congress from putting both of these programs back in the budget – at an unnecessary potential cost to the taxpayers of billions of dollars over the next few years.  I have strongly recommended a presidential veto if either program is included in next year’s defense budget legislation.

Consider another example.  Leaving aside the sacred obligation we have to America’s wounded warriors, health-care costs are eating the Defense Department alive, rising from $19 billion a decade ago to roughly $50 billion – roughly the entire foreign affairs and assistance budget of the State Department.  The premiums for TRICARE, the military health insurance program, have not risen since the program was founded more than a decade ago.  Many working age military retirees – who are earning full-time salaries on top of their full military pensions – are opting for TRICARE even though they could get health coverage through their employer, with the taxpayer picking up most of the tab.  In recent years the Department has attempted modest increases in premiums and co-pays to help bring costs under control, but has been met with a furious response from the Congress and veterans groups.  The proposals routinely die an ignominious death on Capitol Hill.

Spencer Ackerman:

As it happens, I wonder if Gates is really right that a mammoth, corpulent and astrategic defense budget is politically unsustainable over time. All available evidence demonstrates the opposite: the politically unsustainable budget is the one that constrains pretty much any aspect of the mammoth, corpulent and astrategic spending and prioritization that Gates accurately diagnoses. Legislators do not lose their jobs for acquiescing to Pentagon bloat. They lose their jobs for combatting it — or they fear they would, so they don’t.

That’s why Gates’s speech arguably should have focused more — or, really, at all — on the defense-contractor-funded cottage industry that pumps out think-tank reports and about the inevitability of confrontation with China or a resurgent Russia or name your enemy of the moment; that presumes the military is the only dependable tool of American strategy and that non-military options are either naive paths to failure or pretexts for ultimate aggression; and a media that generally never met a war that it wouldn’t treat as presumptively justified.

I don’t mean to suggest that just because someone doesn’t offer a wholesale critique that his/her critique is necessarily flawed or unfocused or anything else, since having a defense secretary who’s willing to make even half of the critique Gates did make is depressingly rare. But there is a constituency for militarism in this country, a constituency cynically stoked by what others have called a military-industrial-media complex, and it deserves recognition when confronting the dysfunction in the Pentagon and its supposed allies.

Baker Spring at Heritage:

Left unexamined, Secretary Gates’ statement would lead the average American to conclude that it is defense spending that is bankrupting the federal government and threatens to bankrupt the country. In fact, it is Secretary Gates’ statement that deserves closer, harsher scrutiny. While the fiscal condition of the government, as Secretary Gates contends, is parlous, it is wrong to assume that the defense budget is the source of this problem. From the historical perspective, the share of both federal spending and the overall economy committed to defense activities is down significantly from the levels seen in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Despite the fact that the nation is engaged in two larger-scale conflicts as part of the larger war against the forces of terror, one in Afghanistan and the other in Iraq, the defense budget is only marginally higher relative to federal spending and the overall economy than its low point in the 1990s.

Viewed prospectively, it is entitlement spending on health care and retirement that is estimated to absorb 100 percent of federal revenues by roughly the middle of this century. The federal government can and should devote marginally higher shares of its budget and the overall economy to defense than what is in President Obama’s longer-term budget projections. This is because these investments are necessary to maintaining an overall military that is large enough, manned by capable service personnel and technologically advanced enough to defend the American people and meet America’s security commitments around the world.

This is not to say that Secretary Gates is wrong when he asserts that there are places within the defense budget that savings should be realized in order to meet more important defense priorities within marginally higher defense budgets. It is just that Secretary Gates points to the wrong places.

He laments the level of spending on new weapons and equipment, but modernization spending is a lower share of the overall defense budget, compared to spending on operations and manpower, than in earlier periods. He rebels against the excessive bureaucracy in the Pentagon, but asks for acquisition reform legislation from Congress that only adds to the oversight functions within the acquisition system. Most discouraging, Secretary Gates asserts that military health-care costs “are eating the Defense Department alive.” This is clearly so, but the Secretary fails to recommend the kind of systemic reforms that would produce large and long-term savings that could be plowed back into building a more modern and capable military.

In reality, the defense budget is suffering from the same ailments affecting the larger federal budget, only to a lesser degree. It is the driving force of the entitlement mentality. Military in-kind and deferred benefits continue to grow on a per capita basis and constitute a far larger share of compensation than what is found in the private sector. The Department of Defense should permit growth in cash compensation and look to transform defined benefit programs into defined contribution programs under the concept of “continuum of service” so that military personnel can build health care and retirement nest eggs over the full expanse of their professional lives.

Mackenzie Eaglen at The Corner:

Unfortunately, Sec. Robert Gates continues to let the defense tail wag the foreign-policy dog. His Kansas speech discussed hard choices, the “dilemma” of paying for America’s national security, and the need to maintain balance among federal programs. Washington’s global budgeting priorities are the stuff of a larger debate, one that should involve the American people. But it’s a topic that falls largely outside the purview of the secretary of defense.

Defense policy is supposed to be subordinate to foreign policy. Defense policy — and by extension a plan of what the U.S. military must buy to meet the nation’s needs — is supposed to be dictated by America’s foreign-policy goals and vital national interests, as outlined by the president.

America’s military power should match the commitments America’s military is expected to keep, which in turn are determined by how American political leaders, over time, define the vital interests of the U.S. It is not up to the Pentagon to determine America’s foreign-policy vision. Unfortunately, this administration has yet to articulate that vision. It is supposed to be contained in the National Security Strategy report. But the administration has not yet completed that report.

The vacuum of leadership keeps Secretary Gates in the foreign-policy driver’s seat — a position he has assumed with no visible sign of reluctance.

John Guardiano at FrumForum:

“Reform,” of course is unobjectionable. Who, after all, wants to spend money on Pentagon bureaucracy and administrative overhead? But the idea that real and significant cost savings can be achieved simply by cutting “fat” and excess from the defense budget is fanciful and illusory. No informed analyst or observer believes this.

Thus “reform” is really a public relations ruse designed to make palatable further cuts in the defense budget. It is, if you will, the proverbial lipstick put on a pig.

And in fact, Gates is quite candid and forthright about what is driving this latest round of “reform.” It is, as he notes, the need to cut the defense budget so that defense spending matches an artificially constrained top-line budget number.

“Given America’s difficult economic circumstances and parlous fiscal condition,” Gates said in a speech on Saturday, “military spending on things large and small can and should expect closer scrutiny. The gusher [of new defense spending] has been turned off and will stay off for a good period of time.”

In one respect, Gates is to be applauded for his purported attempt to impose fiscal discipline on the sprawling Pentagon bureaucracy. Indeed, would that the Secretary of Education and the Secretary of Health and Human Services did the same.

But make no mistake: Gates is the Obama administration’s willing accomplice. He is part and parcel of an administration that is seeking to radically reduce defense spending as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) even as it dramatically increases spending on social-welfare programs and entitlements.

Indeed, the “gusher” of defense spending referenced by Gates is, in relative terms, anything but extravagant. Only about 20% of the federal budget, after all, is spent on defense. This translates into little more than four percent of the GDP. And yet, under President Obama, defense spending is projected to decline to less than three percent of the GDP — an historic low at a time of war.

Obama “is cutting the defense budget, both in real dollar terms and as a percent of the economy,” explains Heritage Foundation analyst James J. Carafano. “The average Pentagon budget for the period covering fiscal years 2011 through 2028 will be $50 billion less in real dollars than its current estimate for this fiscal year.”

But what is the first and most important responsibility of the federal government? It’s not to “give” everyone healthcare. It’s not to protect the “right” to abortion. It’s not to “save” the environment. It’s to “provide for the common defense” in an increasingly interdependent and dangerous world.

The Obama-Gates defense budgets, unfortunately, make this constitutionally-prescribed task more difficult.

Tina Dupuy:

Gates’ speech highlights the fact that we’re in a solo arms race. Every other nation quit the competition and we’re still sprinting to be on top. For the first time we disclosed the exact amount of nuclear warheads in our arsenal: 5,113. That enormous stockpile has to be maintained and by some estimates we spend $29 billion annually on it.

That’s right, we spend $29 billion a year maintaining weapons we only have so we will hopefully never use them. But bring it up and you’re a thumb-sucking pinko.

We have two current wars we are waging and we are still preparing for other wars our grandparents already won.

Military spending is a third rail hopefully made less charged by Secretary Gates, but not likely. For American politicians speaking about it is taboo. To incorporate the always colorful, currently incarcerated, former governor of Louisiana, Edwin Edwards, he said the only way he could lose the election against David Duke was to be caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy. I’ll add: or admit plans for defense spending cuts.

Benjamin Friedman at Cato:

The Secretary of Defense gave a good speech over the weekend at the Eisenhower library.  Gates used the occasion to evoke Eisenhower and call for discipline in defense spending. But he didn’t really mean it.

The speech makes excellent points about how our military’s size long ago ceased to have anything to do with our potential enemies. He pointed out that the non-war defense budget has grown by about half since September 11 and that country’s current fiscal circumstance means that that growth has got to slow.

But the speech shows no indication that Gates wants to cut defense spending. It isn’t even clear that he has changed his view that defense spending should grow by about 2% annually no matter what happens in the world. He claims that while defense secretary he has canceled programs worth $330 billion in their lifetime. True, but they were replaced by other programs, and the budgets Gates has sent to the Hill have been bigger each year in real terms. A cynical take is that Gates is trying to preempt calls for defense cuts by acting as if roughly flat budgets require great discipline.

What’s really going on here is that the cost of the current defense program is growing so fast that you need large annual increases just to keep what you have. The main cause is rapid growth in the cost of operations and maintenance and personnel. Those accounts are squeezing others (research, development and procurement) needed for new vehicles and weapons. Last year, Gates responded to that pressure by proposing cuts in procurement spending. People treated him like a revolutionary for doing so, but he was just balancing his books. Now that the worst white elephant programs are gone (with several glaring exceptions), Gates is pushing the services to cut overhead costs and shift the saving into procurement. And he is telling them to buy more cheap platforms by controlling requirements creep.  Same price, better product. End of story.

The point Gates missed about Eisenhower is that he used strategy to limit spending. The New Look was an air force-first strategy that limited army and navy spending, much to the chagrin of those services. Gates’ enthusiasm for counter-insurgency wars has not lead him to propose cutting the navy and air force budgets to fund the super-sized ground forces one needs for such missions. His official strategy shows little inclination for hard choices.

Walker Frost at The American Scene


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