Experts Weigh In On Gates With Metaphors–A Step In The Right Direction? Or Bitter Wine.

April 9, 2009 11:23 a.m.

Here’s what we know about the politics of the Pentagon budget proposal so far.

  1. Very few politicians have spoken up in support of it.
  2. Many of the people speaking out against it are portraying it inaccurately as a “soft-on-defense” spending cut.
  3. This meme has found a fairly strong foothold in the media, which has
  4. Given me quite a bit of work to do this week.

But what do experts (those people who make the defense budget and other Pentagon arcana their stock and trade) have to say?Larry Korb is a senior fellow at the progressive Center for American Progress, but from 1981 through 1985 he served under Ronald Reagan as assistant secretary of defense, where, according to his staff bio, he “administered about 70 percent of the defense budget.”

“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” he says, cautioning that these changes have been “a long time coming.”

As far as the ‘cuts’ meme goes, he’s with us–spending is going up: “This is the 11th year in a row it’s going up in real terms.”

I asked him if he thinks there’s an explanation for the meme beyond petty politics and parochial and business interests and he offered some interesting thoughts: “I think basically, the reason is that a lot of people thought that given the economic situation, that you’d just keep building everything regardless–that you’d have it as a stimulus.”

He adds, “And you know the cutbacks in the missile defense programs…for Republicans that’s kind of a litmus test of loyalty to the Reagan legacy.” Gates’ cut, though, “is about $1.5 billion–about a 16 percent cut, but what’s overlooked is that funding for that was doubled under Bush.”

Meanwhile, Winslow Wheeler, Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, colorfully suggests that Gates’ proposals aren’t really all that radical. “While many decisions were made, the Pentagon-ship of state appears to be very much on the same basic course.”

For the defense Department’s broken acquisition system, the Secretary’s endorsement of the Levin-McCain “procurement reform” bill (now watered down at the Defense Department’s urging) means that business as usual is very alive and well. There will be some new bottles for some very old wine, but the bitterness of the taste will still be around as we rush to build untested aircraft (e.g. F-35), endorse problematic, unaffordable ship designs (e.g. LCS), and spend generously to defend against less, not more likely, threats (e.g. missile defense).

For one set of decisions, even if they are unspectacular, Secretary Gates deserves much good credit. He made people his first priority. Hopefully, that was not just rhetorical. The emphasis he put on medical research, caring for the wounded, and family support are all to be greatly commended. I fear, however, that Congress will do little more on this prime issue than simply throw money – as it has in the past.

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