Barack Obama’s apparent decision to retain Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense is popular in the Beltway. One thing pundits admire is Gates’ talk about sacrificing expensive weapons systems designed for peer competitors to pay for the counterinsurgency campaigns that we are fighting. What Gates’ fans don’t point out is he has done little more than talk. Under his watch, the Pentagon recently drafted a fiscal year 2010 defense budget that requests a $60 billion increase over FY 2009 spending, not including war costs. That is a departure from prior Pentagon plans that envisioned defense spending leveling off next year. The 2010 budget proposal comes with a new five-year plan that would boost spending by $450 billion. The increase would avoid the kind of painful choices that Gates has discussed.
This request sets up a dilemma for the Obama administration. There are indications that the Democratic leadership on the Hill wants to contain defense spending to help pay for the proliferating bailouts. But the Pentagon’s plan is, by most accounts, an attempt to box Obama in – even a decision to hold spending at last year’s level could be called a cut, and open the President up to attack from the right. The services and Bush administration, including Gates, would like to fix defense spending at over four percent of GDP, even if the wars wind down and GDP resumes its normal growth. This budget serves that purpose, which is devoid of strategic rationale.
Ideally, Obama would force massive cuts on the Pentagon. Its budget is already far too big. At a minimum, if only to demonstrate that he won’t be bullied by the bureaucracy, Obama should tell the Pentagon to rewrite its proposed budget without the increase. If Obama is keeping Gates’ spending ideas along with Gates, it is one more indication that Obama’s defense policy is likely to be a kindlier, gentler version of Bush’s, a more competent imperialism.