George Bush's Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, who also happens to be Barack Obama's Secretary of Defense, has identified a free-spending governmental agency that will have to be reined in if the United States is going to balance budgets and cut deficits.
The agency? The Department of Defense.
Gates used a speech marking the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe to argue that blank-check spending does not make the country or the world safer.
In a speech that was as welcome as it was remarkable, the Pentagon chief explained that the Congress, Department of Defense officials and defense contractors had allowed military spending to grow unchecked after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
Warning that this sort of budgeting without checks or balances is unsustainable, Gates called for a radical shift in direction.
“What it takes is the political will and willingness…to make hard choices — choices that will displease powerful people both inside the Pentagon and out,” Gates declared on Saturday, in a speech at the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas, where the current Secretary of Defense noted that the, like many military men, the commander of U.S. forces in Europe during World War II worried about excessive defense spending and warned about the threat posed by the "acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex."
“Eisenhower was wary of seeing his beloved republic turn into a muscle-bound, garrison state—militarily strong, but economically stagnant and strategically insolvent,” explained Gates, who reminded the crowd that, when Ike was president "real choices were made, priorities set, and limits enforced."
In the spirit of Eisenhower, Gates used his speech Saturday to announce that he had directed military officials and defense contractors to slash overhead, and take a “hard, unsparing look” at their spending.
The Secretary of Defense also challenged members of Congress to stop funding expensive weapons systems and spending boondoggles -- including multibillion-dollar ships and submarines, additional Boeing C-17 cargo airplanes and the General Electric-Rolls Royce secondary engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter -- that the Pentagon has made clear are not needed to defend the United States.
In order “to have a balanced military portfolio geared to real world requirements and a defense budget that is fiscally and politically sustainable over time,” Gates said the United States must develop "the political will and willingness…to make hard choices — choices that will displease powerful people both inside the Pentagon and out.”
The Defense Secretary admitted that making hard -- and right -- choices “will mean overcoming steep institutional and political challenges, many lying outside the five walls of the Pentagon.”
It will, as well, require the asking of serious questions.
“For example, should we really be up in arms over a temporary projected shortfall of about 100 Navy and Marine strike fighters relative to the number of carrier wings, when America’s military possesses more than 3,200 tactical combat aircraft of all kinds?” asked Gates, who was referencing the current congressional push to allocate money for the purchase of more Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets, despite the fact that the Pentagon has made clear they are unneeded.
“Does the number of warships we have and are building really put America at risk when the U.S. battle fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined, 11 of which belong to allies and partners?" Gates continued. "Is it a dire threat that by 2020 the United States will have only 20 times more advanced stealth fighters than China?”
One does not need to agree with Gates' politics or his past actions -- in Iraq, Afghanistan or Washington -- to recognize that these are the rational questions of a rational man -- a man considering what he refers to as a “wider real world context.”
The question, of course, is whether members of House and Senate -- Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals -- are prepared to recognize that real world context and operate within it.
The fact of the matter is that no discussion of cutting spending, balancing budgets and reducing deficits is serious if it does not include a discussion of how to cut Pentagon waste and abuse.
The Secretary of Defense is ready for that discussion.