Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the Bush Cabinet officer who agreed to remain in place in the Obama administration, is demonstrating considerable policy courage.
So far, at least, he has shown himself to be a man for all seasons, politically speaking. In a very partisan time, with particularly intense rancor between Democrats and Republicans, he has been quite adept at bridging the great divide. Indeed, Gates is the first Pentagon head in history to continue in the post after an election resulted in a change in party in the White House.
Just-announced proposals will drastically shift Defense Department strategic planning overall as well as a myriad of specific weapons systems. In a fundamental course reversal, Gates has bluntly criticized the Pentagon for giving too much emphasis to preparing for unlikely general wars with China, Russia and other major powers, while our most serious immediate challenges involve limited unconventional wars. These conflicts, especially in Afghanistan, will now be the priority.
Gates has also been notably specific as well as comprehensive in announcing planned cuts. Every weapons program currently behind schedule or over budget will be reduced. Prime targets include the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor fighter, Boeing C-17 transport, Boeing’s program to arm 747 aircraft with laser weapons, the Army’s Future Combat Systems program, and the Missile Defense Agency.
Some programs will receive increased funding, notably the Lockheed F-35 fighter. There is also a projected increase in civilian employees to reduce dependence on independent corporate contractors, a source of controversy. Contract employees will fall from 39 percent to 26 percent of total personnel.
The strategic shift is reminiscent of the transition from Dwight D. Eisenhower to John F. Kennedy during the height of the Cold War. Ike gave strict sustained emphasis to nuclear weapons and long-range air power, while reining in force levels. This controlled costs at a time when defense consumed approximately half the federal budget, a far larger proportion than today.
JFK drastically shifted course, with great emphasis on unconventional wars. A pervasive sense that the Soviets and, especially, the Chinese were making Cold War gains in the Third World drove the new approach. The Kennedy administration also greatly increased defense spending across the board. By contrast, Gates confronts hard allocation choices.
Current proposals imply sensitivity to allies, especially in Europe. The F-35, for example, involves Britain and the Netherlands. During the 1970s, NATO Commander Gen. Alexander Haig was successful in promoting specific inter-allied defense cooperation. That tradition bears emulating after the Cold War.
"From the Shadows," Gates’ notably candid memoirs on his CIA career, are rich in discussion of policies as well as personalities. He argues that Jimmy Carter projected an image of weakness in part because of personal style, but also because of a penchant for reviewing specific defense procurements in detail, then publicly announcing cuts. By being out front on this, Gates can effectively shield President Obama.
This is especially important for a Democratic president. While the party has just won a national election, defense remains an area of perceived weakness. A representative ABC-Washington Post poll just before the November election showed that, by 49 percent to 43 percent, Republican presidential nominee John McCain was viewed as more likely than Obama to protect national security.
Gates’ proposals for great change have sparked very strong criticism in Congress. On leaving office, Eisenhower warned of the "military-industrial complex." Ike’s insight continues to resonate. Gates, however, has the capacity to succeed.
(Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College. He can be reached at acyr(at)carthage.edu.)