Two years from today, Robert Gates will be approaching the end of his tenure as defense secretary. That’s how much time Gates has to fix the mess he has inherited — two years. Not enough time to gain control of the defense planning process, or to slow the spiraling cost of military healthcare benefits, or to fix the department’s baroque acquisition system. But with the right priorities Gates can still get a lot done, because the nation wants him to succeed.
Donald Rumsfeld liked to carry a list of priorities in his pocket when he was defense secretary. There were ten of them, and they were very ambitious — items like “transform the joint force” and “optimize intelligence capabilities.” Unfortunately, “learn to get along with Congress” wasn’t one of them. “Treat the officer corps with respect” wasn’t either. As a result, Rumsfeld’s agenda never got much traction outside the hermetically-sealed circle of ideologues that surrounded him. Robert Gates will need to be more humble in his aspirations and behavior. Here are the most important goals Gates can accomplish in the time he has.
Stabilize Iraq. The controversy over what to do about Iraq has congealed into two camps: supporters of the President who lack a clear plan for achieving victory, and critics of the President who have a detailed plan for America’s defeat. The critics are products of the same foreign-policy consensus that yielded such memorable successes as the Vietnam War and the nation-building campaign in Somalia. The one thing they see clearly is that developments in Iraq are out of control. That is the core challenge Mr. Gates will face there — not U.S. casualties, which after nearly four years of fighting total a small fraction of the losses at Gettysburg, and not U.S. costs, which to date represent about ten days worth of activity in a $13 trillion economy. The challenge is stabilizing Iraq, without which nothing else can be accomplished. If Mr. Gates can devise a strategy for containing the violence, there will be less pressure to withdraw, and more time to fashion a permanent solution.
Discipline Spending. The buying power of defense outlays in fiscal 2007 is likely to reach twice the level of President Clinton’s last year in office — $304 billion then versus $630-660 billion today. Under Mr. Rumsfeld, the Pentagon’s budgeting system has become as undisciplined as the Mahdi Army. But it would be a mistake to follow the advice of the Iraq Study Group and subsume war spending in the regular defense budget, because the unpredictability of war needs would reduce the planning process to chaos. Mr. Gates needs to find some way of keeping the two categories of spending separate while giving Congress more opportunity for oversight of expenditures in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Manage Modernization. Mr. Rumsfeld took a perverse pleasure in avoiding involvement in acquisition matters. But transformation is mainly about what tools the military buys, and the nation’s arsenal is beginning to look downright decrepit. The Army needs to revitalize its armored vehicles while finding a less vulnerable successor to the aging Humvee. The Air Force needs to replace Cold War fighters and aerial-refueling tankers. The Navy can’t meet future sea-control and intelligence-gathering requirements with only one new submarine per year. All of the services need better helicopters and communications. If Secretary Gates can just keep the programs going that have already been started, that will be a major achievement. If he can actually find time to manage them, he’ll be a better leader than his predecessor.
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