The Magazine

Revolt of the Congress

Robert Gates's defense cuts meet resistance on Capitol Hill.

Jul 20, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 41 • By GARY SCHMITT and THOMAS DONNELLY
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One of Barack Obama's most politically adept decisions upon winning the White House was to ask Robert Gates to remain in place as the nation's secretary of defense. By choosing Gates--who had served with distinction at the CIA, the National Security Council, and most recently at the Pentagon under George W. Bush--Obama added credibility to his administration in the area of national security where his own résumé was lacking. Perhaps inspired by Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln--a book candidate Obama said he had read and been taken with--the new president hoped the choice would help him sell his decisions on national security and the military to moderates in his own party and members of the GOP since his front man had been the successful, war-winning Pentagon chief under the previous president.

And for a while, it worked. In early April, Gates announced a series of cuts in defense programs and spending that, with few exceptions, generated only isolated criticism on the Hill. The ostensible justifications for the cuts were two: the current fiscal crisis and the need to focus the military on today's wars, not speculative future contingencies. For many, these rationales seemed reasonable enough, especially coming from Secretary Gates.

But in fact they're not reasonable. If the fiscal crisis was the driving force behind the cuts, then someone forgot to notify the rest of the administration. While the Pentagon was being told to shut down programs, the Obama team was encouraging the rest of government to spend like drunken sailors. As the stimulus package was being cobbled together, military projects best fit the Keynesian profile of "shovel-ready," yet the Pentagon received just one half of one percent of the $787 billion in additional funding.

If Gates, moreover, had truly been concerned about today's wars, he would have taken the savings that came from his program cuts in April and used them to increase the size of the Army. But he didn't. Instead, he's capped ground forces and appears satisfied to live with an Army and Marine Corps that are severely stretched and will remain so as we build up in Afghanistan.

The first sign that there might be a crack in the wall of the Gates-Obama defense plan was the mid-June decision by the House Armed Services Committee to begin buying parts for 12 more F-22s, the stealthy air-dominance fighter that Secretary Gates has wanted to limit to 187 planes. As one Democrat on the committee put it, "It's not a Democrat or Republican thing at all, but rather a Congress versus the executive in terms of who's in charge."

Then, in late June, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved the acquisition of seven more F-22s as well, even as the White House was announcing a possible veto of the defense bill if it contained money for keeping the jet fighter's production line open. In addition, the committee's version of the bill authorized a 30,000-soldier expansion of the active Army--in other words, it made a more substantive commitment to winning "the war we're in" than Gates himself. As Senator Joseph Lieberman, who sponsored the provision, observed, "The number of deployed soldiers will increase into next year because we will be sending more troops to win the war in Afghanistan before a large number of soldiers begin to return from Iraq."

Less reported on but no less significant a sign that Congress may have a different vision of the country's defense priorities came when the House version of the annual defense authorization bill called for the revival of an independent "National Defense Panel" to assess the administration's Quadrennial Defense Review. If there is to be a larger revolt against the Gates cuts and defense vision, this will be the central bureaucratic battleground.

Here's why: The Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) is the process by which a new administration determines whether U.S. military forces are adequate to meet America's strategic needs. There have been three previous QDRs--indeed five counting the first Bush administration's "Base Force" and the Clinton administration's "Bottom-Up" reviews. In the post-Cold War environment, answering the traditional question of force-planning--"How much is enough?"--has proved difficult.

When the Republican Congress wrote the law mandating the 1997 QDR, it specified that an outside National Defense Panel should evaluate the Pentagon's work; congressional defense leaders did not trust the Clinton administration to do an honest review. The House Armed Services Committee has revived the panel for exactly the same reason and has done so with the explicit backing of both the committee chairman, Representative Ike Skelton, and the ranking Republican, Howard "Buck" McKeon. When the House and Senate versions of the defense bill go to conference to be reconciled, there is a good chance that Senate Republicans and key Democrats like Lieberman will accede to the House's call for an oversight body.

And so the National Defense Panel will be a natural rallying point for the disparate forces on Capitol Hill and throughout Washington seeking to derail the Gates train. It will provide a vehicle not just for reviewing the termination of the F-22 and other major procurements but also for advocating a more meaningful commitment to irregular warfare by increasing the numbers of U.S. land forces. It would offset the twin Gates strategies of divide-and-conquer--playing off one procurement program against another--and pitting concerns about irregular and high-tech conventional warfare against each other in a zero-sum budget game.

As of today, the QDR is an exercise in putting strategic lipstick on a budget-cutting pig; it is part and parcel of the administration's larger goal of fundamentally reordering federal priorities. At the end of eight years, if the White House has its way, the U.S. budget will ape those of most European countries: huge domestic entitlements, with a defense burden shrinking to or below 3 percent of GDP.

The proposed National Defense Panel could be a small but significant sign that some Democrats and Republicans are having second thoughts about this direction and are willing to challenge Gates's aura of infallibility. If the Senate adds the National Defense Panel provision to the final defense bill, the stage will be set, if not for a battle royal, then at least for an honest debate about the country's future defenses.

Tom Donnelly is resident fellow in defense studies and Gary Schmitt is resident scholar in strategic studies at the American Enterprise Institute.