August 10, 2010 10:52AM

Bob Gates Against the World

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has again made headlines with a proposal to slow the growth of the Pentagon's budget -- already higher than at any point since World War II -- by cutting overhead, waste and a top-heavy command structure.

The proposed shuttering of Joint Forces Command (Jif-Com) has elicited most of the press attention today, and prompted an impassioned plea from Virginia politicians, including Gov. Bob McDonnell, that the command remain open. Unhelpfully for Gov. McDonnell, outgoing Jif-Com head James Mattis (who will assume the title of CENTCOM), reportedly supports Gates's decision.

But this isn't the first time that opportunistic politicians have latched onto defense spending as a way to sprinkle economic benefits to their constituents, and at the expense of the rest of us. (In the same vein, Gates reportedly repeated his pledge to kill the entire DoD appropriation if it includes the unwanted C-17 and the alternate engine for the Joint Strike Fighter that some members of Congress continue to push.)

Leaving aside the predictable political wailings, the reforms that Gates proposed are neither revolutionary, nor particularly controversial to most objective observers. Politico's Gordon Lubold and Jen DiMascio in their ever-helpful Morning Defense newsletter point out that "The cuts seemed to take several pages out of the Defense Business Board task force led by [Arnold] Punaro that recently recommended many of the same trims." (For more on that report, see here.)

The true object of Gates latest round of economizing is to forestall calls for deeper cuts by a public frustrated by the high costs and dubious benefits of our military's exertions over the years. Gates explained:

“What we need is modest, sustainable growth over a prolonged period of time that allows us to make sensible investment decisions and not have these giant increases and giant decreases that make efficiency and doing acquisition in a sensible way almost impossible.” (my emphasis)

But Gates either misapprehends or mischaracterizes the true source of the problem. U.S. military spending has grown for 13 years, 86 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars from 1998 to 2011. Claiming that uncertainty over future military spending impedes effective planning and creates waste ignores that relative certainty over ever-rising defense budgets has enabled the very waste and mismanagement that Gates now proposes to cure.

Gates also succumbs to (or, worse, propagates) the sort of threat inflation that has afflicted U.S. foreign policy for decades, and about which Ben Friedman and John Mueller have written much. Gates claims that the U.S. military needs to grow because the world is becoming "more dangerous." More dangerous than what? The notion that a few hundred al Qaeda ragamuffins and their Taliban allies poses a greater threat to Americans than a nuclear-armed Soviet Union is absurd on its face, and yet we spend more on our military today than at the height of the Cold War.

This threat inflation distorts our strategic planning, and does more harm to our long-term security than too many high paid civilians in the Pentagon. Although Pentagon waste and excessive overhead is a problem, it isn't the problem. The fact that we have too many flag officers doesn't explain why the United States spends more on its military than every other country in the world. Rather, it is our overly ambitious foreign policy that needlessly wastes U.S. taxpayer resources around the world in quixotic enterprises to rebuild failed states, reform sclerotic political systems, hunt after terrorists, and otherwise defend other countries who should defend themselves.

Cuts in military spending -- real cuts, not merely slowing the rate of growth -- would impose some short-term pain on an overburdened military that has been used and misused by our political class since the end of the Cold War. A better solution would be to adopt a more restrained grand strategy, one dedicated to defending our security and advancing our interests, but that forced other countries to play a larger role in doing the same. Restraint would allow for a much smaller -- and less expensive -- U.S. military, and would result in no diminution of American security.

The Washington establishment is unlikely to embrace such a strategy any time soon, however, because it would impose some real constraints on both the military and on Congress, the latter of which continues to use the Pentagon's budget as a vehicle for dispensing pork under the guise of making Americans safer.

Unhappily for Gates, but especially for our troops, cuts in military spending are likely to come without an attendant change in how our military is used.