Kaplan Is All Wrong About Gates
By Benjamin Domenech
Slate's Fred Kaplan is not particularly impressed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates' approach to budgetary decision making, pronouncing it "crafty but inadequate. ... Much of what he wants to do seems the sort of thing somebody should have done years ago," Kaplan writes, and on that point, he's right - yet minimizing the importance of what Gates is doing here seems foolish upon closer inspection.
Gates isn't just providing a model for how you can achieve responsible Pentagon cutbacks - he's doing so in a time of war; a profoundly difficult political reality for any Secretary of Defense to confront. The truth is that there isn't anyone else who could be in Gates' role who would even attempt this kind of reform.
As Kaplan concedes, there is "an interlocking web of officers, bureaucrats, corporations and legislators, all of whom have an interest in their survival." This is hardly unique to the Pentagon - in fact, survival is the primary motivation of any bureaucrat. But it is made all the more challenging within the defense policy sphere, where Gates is essentially announcing he's stealing cookies from powerful general officers and members of Congress - and they all have a sweet tooth.
Consider for a moment how unprecedented this is within Washington: a secretary of a department telling his underlings to expect modest growth at best, and putting the pressure on the services to make cuts in order to keep their babies. While Kaplan mocks the idea slightly, this is the real innovation within Gates' approach - the reason many of these bloated programs get kept at all is that the individual services simply want to defend their territory, and keep the money they now view as their rightful possession.
Gates is essentially giving the services a chance to cut fat out of the system without risking their overall budget numbers - he's manipulating the love for the pet programs in the military culture, and using it to force cuts in bureaucracy. This is an ingenious bit of Winston Wolfe problem solving, the sort for which Gates is already well known.