The Political Audacity of Bob Gates

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"The culture of endless money that has taken hold must be replaced by a culture of restraint." No, that's not Joe Trippi, the Democratic strategist, talking. That's the sitting Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, announcing the next phase in his politically audacious and fairly effective effort to reform and transform the Department of Defense.

Previous attempts to rationalize and tame the military industrial conflict, Secretary Gates believes, haven't been successful. They've been predicated on the necessity of cutting the overall budget, thereby ensuring that political considerations trump strategic priorities. Or they've been undertaken without enough force to pressure a famous bureaucracy famous for creating whole new organizations with names like the "Business Transformation Agency" in order to try to provide marginal savings from the acquisition process.

Gates wants the defense budget to be reliable and predictable, looking more like a gently sloping hill than the lines on a defibrillator. He wants to give the services themselves more flexibility about how to spend their money in a threat environment that constantly changes. When China announces that its ballistic missiles can now hit moving U.S. aircraft carriers, duplication studies and task forces and bloated senior level staff often get in the way.

The Joint Forces Command is based in Norfolk, Virginia. Thousands of Virginians will lose their jobs. In Gates's world, though, "Virginia may well come out with a lot more jobs than it loses." Why? Less headquarters bloat will give the Navy more money to build ships in Newport News.

"This is why the point needs to be emphasized," he said. "This is not about cutting the defense budget." Services like the Navy that identify savings can "invest them in higher priority things," Gates said.

At the top of the food chain are lifers -- senior executive service civilians and flag officers in uniform -- more than 40 of them with 4-star rank. To reduce the number of separate fiefdoms this has created, Gates proposed to cut the flag officer ranks by 50 positions over the next two years and the SES by 150. He supports so-called contractor attrition, which means that when contract employees leave their jobs, those jobs no longer exist. This is "meat" on the bones of his efficiency initiative, in the words of the Pentagon's in-house news agency.

Gates is the cabinet's superstar. He has the credibility among all constituencies -- the military, Congress, Republicans -- to rationalize and restrain the defense budget in a way that President Obama could not do on his own, and in a way that a Republican president might not have the fortitude to ask for. Since the budget isn't actually going to be cut, Obama is not going to get credit from those on his side who will find Gates's measures cosmetic. But Gates, wittingly, provides Obama plenty of cover heading into 2011 and 2012, when many of these measures will take effect, and when congressional districts across the country will feel losses, and when Republican presidential candidates begin to make a case against Obama's stewardship of the national security establishment.

Rep. Ike Skelton, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, was cautiously optimistic.

"Although I am still reviewing the specific details of this announcement, Secretary Gates has proposed a number of steps that appear to efficiently find savings within the defense budget without taking away resources from our warfighters," he said in a statement.

Gates disclosed that he's ordered a full review of all Pentagon intelligence programs, and that the new Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, is thinking about a similar review for national agencies. He wants to eliminate duplication. He also wants to streamline oversight. He says he wants to work with Congress to reduce the number of studies -- an average of two a day -- that Congress requests from DoD about this, that and the other. Congress requests these studies in the name of oversight, but Gates believes they've contributed mightily to overhead.


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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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