For those of you looking for some thoughtful commentary, Fareed Zakaria knocked this one out of the park.
The administration's announcement, of course, is the subject of much consternation from the right side of the political sphere. Reaction from the Wall Street Journal can be found here, while the temper tantrum thrown by Michelle Malkin (who warns that Obama's military will be "dramatically scaled back") can be found here.
The Wall Street Journal columnists opine that, if President Obama has his way, the military will "be smaller and pack less wallop." A post at Sister Toldjah, one of the more highly read blogs on the right, called this another part of the president's socialist agenda, and in the 21st century, any cut to DoD is inevitably harmful to the military. Similarly, Prairie Pundit, a lesser-read right-wing blog, opined that the administration was cutting defense programs that "keep us safe" while favoring myriad social endeavors -- of course, without any documentation as to the usefulness of said programs that Gates wants to reduce or eliminate.
Conservatives treat defense spending as a zero-sum game. They seem to believe that the only way America can become more safe is if Congress pours huge, nondiscretionary sums of money into the Department of Defense. And, to these people, any talk of cutting any defense spending whatsoever -- no matter how wasteful the program is found to be -- emboldens the terrorists and is unpatriotic.
Defense spending is out of control and has been for decades. Congress exercises virtually no oversight over the programs into which taxpayer money is being poured. Defense spending comprises roughly 20% of the federal budget. Last year, the Department of Defense was allocated $665 billion -- and that doesn't include Iraq's $10 billion per month price tag. All told, the United States spent nearly $800 billion on national defense in 2008.
What Secretary Gates understands -- and most conservatives seemingly do not -- is that the U.S. military stockpiles 21st century weapons in a 20th century mindset.
What is the problem with allowing the secretary of defense to reshape our military in ways that reflects the dangers of the world we actually inhabit?
The answer: Nothing.
Until the Berlin Wall fell, the United States was constantly faced with the very real threat of World War III. (Just ask the still-living members of President Kennedy's cabinet.) The Soviet Union maintained the second-most powerful military in the world, a conventional land, air and sea force, which required an enormous American military buildup to counter it. President Reagan understood this, perfecting the American "peace through strength" mentality. Enormous military budgets were necessary in the 1970s and 80s, because the United States was rivaled by a superpower that wished to pour just as many resources into its military.
But shortly after Reagan left office, the Soviet Union collapsed.
And it's very clear that radical Islamic extremism is fundamentally different from the dangers posed by the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War.
I believe that, on the whole, conservatives, more so than liberals (with some exceptions) understand the fundamental nature of the enemy America faces in the 21st century. For all of his shortcomings, President Bush was precisely right when he characterized radical Islamic extremists such as al Qaeda and Islamic Jihad as a shadowy, amorphous adversary. Afghanistan was arguably the only true safe haven for al Qaeda, and the military's powerful show of force in steamrolling the Taliban put the rest of the world on notice as to America's intentions in seeking and destroying the extremists who wish to harm us.
But there is a clear disconnect between this conception of our enemy and the programs into which conservatives wish to pour unbridled sums of money.
The might of the American military is unrivaled. Russia and China, combined, spend roughly $120 billion on their militaries. As noted above, the United States spends roughly five times that amount every year. The war on terror will not be won via American air or sea power. It requires a new way of thinking, of attacking, of infiltrating the most shadowy places on the globe. I had the pleasure of reading Shadow War by acclaimed author Bill Miniter, written in the wake of the American invasion of Afghanistan. In the book, Miniter describes in detail the harsh reality of the 21st century -- hundreds, perhaps thousands, of small, slippery, fast-moving cells of terrorists who, after being thrown out of the Middle East, have begun to take refuge in the most lawless places in the world -- namely, northern Africa.
Even a potentially dangerous country such as Iran cannot hope to match the might of the American military. Mahmoud Ahmadenijad is many things, but he is not dumb.
In this post-9/11 world, why is the Department of Defense allowed to conduct business like it's 1981? As Zakaria noted, these weapons systems are not only subject to negligible oversight, but are crafted and maintained without regard to the type of enemy America faces in the 21st century. By and large, the budgets submitted to Congress by DoD departments are based upon those from the Cold War. What is the necessity of such an enormous F-22 program (created during the Cold War) if there is no air force to get into dogfights with the American military? As noted by Zakaria, despite the fact that we are currently fighting wars in two theaters, not a single F-22 has been used in either one.
I applaud Secretary Gates -- who, remember, was the secretary of defense under a Republican president -- for beginning to evaluate our military spending in light of the wars that we are currently fighting, as well as those wars which America might fight in the future.
In the 21st century battle against radical Islamic extremists, America is much more likely to engage in much smaller conflicts against shadowy, quick-moving enemies on difficult terrain, such as the mountains of Afghanistan or the deserts of northern Africa. Don't think so? Pick up Miniter's book.
This war requires a shift in the American paradigm, with intelligence capabilities coming to the fore and the Department of Defense being willing to share the stage. A reluctance to embrace this reality only delays America's ability to effectively deal with our 21st century enemies.
The harsh reality is that the current paradigm doesn't focus at all on the capabilities of our enemies -- and the capabilities of our enemy throughout the Cold War was the driving force behind the American military buildup in the first place.