CIA Director Leon Panetta becomes secretary of defense Thursday, taking over Washington's largest and most powerful bureaucracy with a budget that amounts to nearly 60 percent of discretionary federal spending. He will be stepping into the shoes of the most influential member of the Obama administration, Robert M. Gates, who has been canonized for his efforts over the past five years. For the past two months, Secretary of Defense Gates has been on a farewell tour of U.S. think tanks, universities and military academies, advocating policies that will make Mr. Panetta's job extremely difficult.
In 2006, Mr. Gates had easy shoes to fill. His predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, had become unpopular in the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and even in the White House. The confirmation process for Mr. Gates was not a grilling but a love fest. He faced no questions about his politicization of intelligence at the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1980s; his knowledge of Iran-Contra; or his lack of experience on vital matters such as weapons acquisition and the need for military reform.
Mr. Gates' recent advocacy will complicate the tasks of his successor: continuing the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and beginning the withdrawal from Afghanistan; significantly reducing the defense budget; and reforming the Pentagon's weapons acquisition process. President Barack Obama is committed to completing the withdrawal from Iraq by the end of the year and beginning the withdrawal from Afghanistan next month. He also hopes to bring the defense budget under control. In recent weeks, Mr. Gates has traveled to both Baghdad and Kabul, where he has called for a continued U.S. presence in Iraq and a token withdrawal from Afghanistan — and no significant cuts in defense spending.
Mr. Gates favors a continuation of current force levels in Afghanistan to move the Taliban to the negotiating table. He ignores the fact that the Taliban have demonstrated no interest in negotiations. He hopes to forget the signing of an unprecedented accord at the White House in November 2009 that committed the Obama team to significant withdrawals from Afghanistan. The document was designed both to limit the ability of the Pentagon to drag its heels on withdrawal and to reduce the power and influence of the uniformed military. Mr. Panetta, having been undercut by Mr. Gates, will now have to deal with this tension between the White House and the uniformed military on troop withdrawals.
In his recent lectures, Mr. Gates warned against any freeze in defense spending, leaving Mr. Panetta to deal with weapons systems and military missions that the United States can no longer afford. As the former director of the Office of Management and Budget, Mr. Panetta presumably understands that the United States, with less than 25 percent of the world's economic output and more than 50 percent of the world's military expenditures, will have to curtail certain weapons and missions. The defense budget has grown more than 50 percent in the past 10 years and now exceeds the pace of spending of the Cold War era, including the wars in Korea and Vietnam as well as the peacetime buildup of President Ronald Reagan.
A reexamination of current troop deployments must include the tens of thousands of troops in Europe and Asia more than six decades after the end of World War II; hundreds of bases and facilities the world over; and the excessive willingness to project power in areas such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, where vital national interests are not at stake. The United States needs to abandon the chimera of national missile defense at home and the need for a regional missile defense in Eastern Europe.
Mr. Panetta also will have to reform the weapons acquisition process that Mr. Gates has ignored for the past five years. This process has been beset with military mismanagement, huge cost overruns, and little congressional scrutiny. At the start of the Obama administration, Mr. Gates, who labels himself a cost-cutter, sponsored 91 defense acquisition programs at a cost of $1.6 trillion over the next 10 years; he will leave the Pentagon with 95 programs at a cost of $1.7 trillion. Mr. Panetta will have to deal with increasingly expensive weapons systems such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a new class of ballistic missile submarines, and a new fleet of aerial refueling tankers for the Air Force. The Marines want a new amphibious vehicle even though they haven't conducted an amphibious landing since 1951. Mr. Gates calls all these systems "absolutely critical" for the nation's defense, but these weapons no longer reflect a balance between cost effectiveness and our national security.
Fifty years after President Dwight D. Eisenhower's warning about the "military-industrial complex," it is time to address the "undue influence" of the Pentagon and the "misplaced power" of the military-congressional lobby.