Secretary Gates is due for the full Pentagon farewell Thursday: Cannons shooting off, guys with swords, lots of shouting, awesome uniforms -- the whole shootin' match. The president and many other luminaries are scheduled to be there. In the eyes of many across Washington, Gates deserves every flourish, not just for his tenure as SecDef, but in honor of his decades of service to eight presidents, running the CIA, etc. Today's ceremony, then, honors a man who went from being "the consummate insider," as he was inevitably described in magazine profiles (his book is called "From the Shadows") to being the kind of candid voice the Beltway loves to love -- a straight talker ... but its kind of straight talker.
Gates's departure also marks the end of the era in which major cuts in Pentagon spending can still look distant, or even doubtful. As Gates has made his final farewells and tried to get rid of as many challenge coins as possible, the tectonic plates under the National Capital Region have been shifting. A growing number of voices, from across the capital, agree that defense cuts must be a part of whatever solution saves America from penury. Gates has spent his final months on the job warning against a "haircut" for DoD, urging instead that Washington must cut in the service of some kind of strategy -- the Mother of All Reviews, now underway.
Maybe that'll happen. Maybe it won't. But starting Friday, Gates won't be around to keep making that case. Nor will he be there to keep drawing fences around the programs he says the Pentagon must pursue: KC-46A, F-35, yadda yadda yadda -- you know the ones.
Mattie Corrao of Americans for Tax Reform made the case this week in The Hill that the arrival of Gates' successor, Leon Panetta, means the talk about budget cuts can finally go from the theoretical to the actual, and not a moment too soon:
Enjoying a 65 percent increase in its base budget over the last decade, the Department of Defense is a notorious home for political favoritism and wasteful spending. This casts downward pressure on spending on legitimate national security causes, a constraint Secretary Gates spent his last few days as the acting chief Pentagon official warning against. His departure, and Leon Panetta’s ascendance to the position, marks an opportunity to reform the taxpayer munificence bestowed upon the Pentagon at a cost of over a trillion over the last decade.Does that mean that Panetta will announce on his first day Friday morning that he has closed down the Marine Corps? Probably not, but it does mean Panetta, as President Obama's "ax man," will start chopping sooner rather than later, and he won't be sentimental about what he hits.
Gates, for all of his brass in confronting the profligate status quo, was still handicapped by his long service as a DOD official. The peculiar tautology that defense spending is essential because it is spending on defense can only be distilled by someone for whom the dogma of defense budgets is not preordained. Mr. Panetta, having served both as the House Budget Committee Chairman and as a White House budget official, has the perspective and, hopefully the mettle, to rebuff this reverence that has allowed Pentagon budgets to balloon, unscrutinized, for too long.
In one of his last addresses as the head of the Pentagon, Secretary Gates warned “there will be a dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress – and in the American body politic writ large – to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.”
Foreign policy and fiscal advocates have warned that the United States cannot expect to maintain both its solvency and its position as the world’s policeman. Gates’s recognition that tax dollars, especially to spend on defense, are a finite resource, will allow Panetta the opportunity to do what something Pentagon officials have never attempted: prioritize spending.