Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

05 March 2011

In Praise of Gates

No, not Bill. Bob.

Republican Robert M. Gates, our Secretary of Defense, is one of a bare handful of supremely competent people in a government run, if not dominated, by idiots and liars. (Lest I be misconstrued, I include the President in that handful.)

Why is Gates so good? Because he thinks, and he tells the truth.

Those are simple virtues. They were things we Americans once took for granted in both political and business leaders. But no more. They are now so rare that they evoke the same astonishment as jewels in sewage.

Gates himself has a refreshing candor that makes him easy to love. Recently he called Washington a city “where so many people are lost in thought because it’s such unfamiliar territory.” How well said, and how depressingly true! Earlier, in rejecting the Rumsfeld-Dubya Maginot Line for Missiles, he described a military mindset “bordering on theology that regards any change of plans or any cancellation of a program as abandonment or even breaking faith.” That mindset has wasted hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ dollars while undermining our national defense.

From his first days in office, Gates displayed a quiet competence that we had not seen in government in a long, long time. How has he improved the nation’s budget and defense? Let me count the ways.

First, he nixed the Maginot Line for Missiles, an immobile, useless, and geopolitically disruptive anti-missile array in Eastern Europe. In the long run, that may have been his most important single act as Secretary of Defense. The program was a complete waste of money, a thumb in the eye of an increasingly rational and friendly Russia, and something that any idiot with long-range missile technology could have circumvented easily. In its place, we will now have a lighter, cheaper, better missile defense, with mobile sensors and interceptors on ships and planes.

Gates’ missile-defense decision made the difference between a useless, static Maginot Line and a twenty-first century panzer division. As a geopolitical by-product of that decision, we now have a second Start treaty with Russia, which puts the Cold War to final rest and lets us concentrate our limited resources and even more limited managerial competence on the twenty-first century’s real military challenges.

Gates second-greatest contribution to our national security was goading our recalcitrant Air Force into producing and using unmanned aerial vehicles. The need for that change was so obvious that even an outsider-blogger like me could see it. But it took someone with Gates’ intelligence, influence and political skill to actually get it done. Against the military’s general inertia and the Air Force’s inveterate Top Gun mentality, it will take continual pressure and strong management to keep the ball rolling.

Gates’ third biggest contribution has been bringing competent management to what may turn out to have been the two most outrageously mismanaged wars in our history. When Gates replaced That Idiot Rumsfeld, Iraq was falling into civil war and the Taliban were reforming and regrouping in both Pakistan and Afghanistan in a way that led to our current difficulties. Gates’ low-key, patient and expert advice turned both situations around, to the point where our efforts in Iraq are already a qualified success and there is a chance of realizing limited political objectives in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is still a work in progress and a work in doubt. Not even the best military management can assure the survival, let alone the success, of a corrupt incompetent like Hamid Karzai. That was a lesson we should have learned in Vietnam.

But Afghanistan is more complex than Vietnam, and in any event the policy decision to escalate in Afghanistan was the President’s. Gates did a good job of implementing that policy in a time of economic collapse, consequent severe budget constraints, and increasing skepticism of the entire endeavor from both left and right. If Karzai’s fragile government fails and our effort in Afghanistan collapses, it is the President, not Gates, who must take the blame.

Gates also worked tirelessly to slow the mindless momentum of our military-industrial complex (MIC). As Eisenhower famously warned, that part of our society presents the greatest immediate danger to the survival of our democratic culture, exceeded only (perhaps) by unregulated banking.

There are several reasons why our own military-industrial complex is uniquely dangerous to our survival as a free nation. When you add up all our “defense” expenditures, including military procurement, the armed forces, Homeland Security, the Coast Guard, and military retirement and health benefits, the sum is by far the largest single line item in our federal budget. So we will never solve our budget problem unless we get “defense” spending, broadly construed, under control.

But numbers tell only part of the story. Our military-industrial complex has become a self-perpetuating, self-interested organism bent on growing without limit. It grows by sapping our nation’s lifeblood, its limited resources, regardless of any real effect on national security.

Eisenhower knew (and warned of) this. But even Eisenhower could not foresee the explosion of privatization of traditionally governmental military functions. Privatization has caused the MIC to mutate from a slow-growing cancer to a metastatic one, whose primary goal is not national defense, but increasing the wealth, employment and political influence of its members. Privatization has given the tumor the power to grow its own blood supply.

Neither the executives involved in military supply and outsourced military services, nor the members of Congress who give them knee-jerk support, worry much whether “defense” expenditures do the job they are supposed to do. Instead they worry, respectively, about their profits and salaries and employment in their districts. Thus they make the MIC a self-perpetuating parasitic organism.

If this trend continues, the MIC will be one of the principal reasons for our loss of global economic leadership to China. Unlike us, the Chinese recognize that “defense” expenditures are essentially non-productive. They are useful only in the unlikely event of war. So the Chinese limit their military budget to things that might really matter in a plausible twenty-first century conflict: cyberwarfare, space technology, a small nuclear arsenal as a deterrent, and a navy capable of keeping the sea lanes open for oil and other commodities.

In other words, China manages its military by objective. It decides what minimum it needs to do what essential jobs and plans accordingly. In contrast, we “size” our military to provide employment, develop backward areas (mostly in the South), and keep mediocre-to-bad politicians in elected office. It doesn’t take much thought to see which approach promises better long-term success.

Gates understands these points and has been working tirelessly, mostly behind the scenes, to effect needed change. Unfortunately, he has threatened to leave government service this year. One hopes he will become increasingly frank and vocal as his departure approaches and make his thinking more widely known. And one hopes even more fervently that he will continue to sound the alarm as a private citizen.

Last but not least is Gates’ sage advice on the temptation of intervening in Libya. Many cities in the West have a greater population than Libya’s (less than 7 million). Qaddafi’s military resources are a measly half-dozen jets and a few dozen old Russian tanks. So it’s tempting to send in our Air Force or Marines, with far superior training and equipment, and stop the slaughter.

But Gates is right. What is going on in Libya is primarily a political conflict, with military overtones. It’s hard to watch a madman slaughter innocent people, but American or Western military intervention might increase the slaughter, if only accidentally. More important, it is vital that Libyans do the suffering and dying themselves, so they can claim their liberty as their own work product.

A recent Kristof column suggests the right way to make a difference in Libya: peel off Qaddafi’s support general by general and colonel by colonel, until the madman and his sons are fighting alone. That battle will be one of diplomacy, in which the telephone will be the principal weapon. It is one that anyone with influence can wage, especially Italians, who have current personal contacts in the country and the most to lose from chaos there. In recommending against hasty military action, Gates once again demonstrated the sound judgment that Americans have a right to expect from their leaders.

Gates is a good man. In a society increasingly ruled by the likes of John Boehner, who has no clue about anything real, whether economic, military or social, Gates seems like a great man. When the time comes for this badly-needed public servant to leave, the President could do a lot worse than letting him choose his own successor.

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