On Saturday the Washington Post published a letter I wrote chastising their editorialists for inventing defense budget cuts:
The Aug. 12 editorial "Mr. Gates's rough cuts" and David S. Broder's Aug. 12 column, "Gates's budget warning shot," applauded the defense secretary for his plans to cut spending even though the plans will do no such thing. As Mr. Broder wrote, Mr. Gates proposed closing the U.S. Joint Forces Command and shedding contractors and generals in the Pentagon's employ. But neither piece noted that these proposals are part of a plan to shift some Pentagon spending from administration to force structure -- not to cut total spending.
The impetus for the cost-shifting plan is the White House's reluctance to increase Pentagon spending by more than 1 percent above inflation for the next few years. Rapid growth in procurement and personnel spending makes that increase insufficient to cover the military's programmatic costs.
Bloated administrative overhead is a good place to find funds for that end. But taxpayers gain nothing.
Mr. Gates has requested substantial increases in defense spending every year that he has been secretary. He opposes spending cuts, even after the wars end, even though the United States now spends more on defense than at any time during the Cold War, adjusting for inflation. He openly hopes that these proposals to heighten administrative efficiency deflect pressure to cut spending. By pretending that these changes do so, The Post helps shield Pentagon spending from scrutiny.
The point is straightforward: Stop confusing reforms explicitly intended to prevent spending cuts with real spending cuts.
The Post, however, repeated the error that my letter complained about in the title they gave it both online (“Will the defense cuts do what Robert Gates says they will?”) and in the actual newspaper (“Scrutinizing Mr. Gates's Defense Budget Cuts”). The editor has yet to respond to my email noting the irony.
I wrote more on the media’s failure to portray these reforms accurately for the National Interest’s new Skeptics blog. (Chris Preble and I have already discussed this topic here.)
The Post’s editorial page typifies the fawning coverage that the Washington commentariat gives Gates. He has a knack for getting even otherwise discerning analysts to portray him as a pragmatist/ realist/ conservative even as he asks Congress to increase a defense budget that is already larger than at any point during the Cold War and advocates endless nation-building warfare in Afghanistan. The keys to his success, I say, are (a) appearing moderate in contrast to the rest of the foreign policy elites in his party, which is easy, (b) skillful management that distracts people from his embrace of policies that are not realistic, pragmatic, or conservative, and (c) eloquently saying things that contradict his actions.
Fareed Zakaria’s latest column, for example, asserts that the only two conservatives in Washington are Gates and the portrait of Eisenhower hanging in his office. Like many, Zakaria is taken with Gates’ recent speech at the Eisenhower library, which praised Ike for restraining defense spending and avoiding intervention in Vietnam. It was such a good speech that you can almost forgive those that fail to note the irony of Gates’ sounding like someone proposing defense cuts and exiting Afghanistan.