Zakaria: GOP Should Heed Robert Gates

Defense Secretary Robert Gates at the Pentagon, announcing a plan to close a joint forces command center in Norfolk. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Robert Gates's latest efforts at reforming the Pentagon are modest. He is not trying to cut the actual defense budget; he merely wants to increase efficiency while reducing bureaucracy, waste, and duplication. The savings he is trying to achieve are perfectly reasonable: $100 billion over five years, during which period the Pentagon will spend approximately $3.5 trillion. And yet he has aroused intense opposition from the usual suspects—defense contractors, lobbyists, the military bureaucracy, and hawkish commentators. He faces spirited opposition from his own party, but it is the Republicans, not Gates, who are abandoning their party's best traditions in defense strategy.

Can anyone seriously question Gates's ideas on the merits? He has pointed out that the spiraling cost of defense hardware has led to the absurdity of destroyers that cost $2 billion to $3 billion per ship and bombers that cost $2 billion per plane. He notes that while the private sector has eliminated middle management and streamlined organization charts, the Pentagon has multiplied its layers of bureaucracy. Nearly a decade ago, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld complained that there were 17 levels of staff between him and a line officer. Gates guesses that there are now about 30 levels.

Graphic: A breakdown on the cost of the Afghan war

Gates has proposed initial reforms that include dismantling one command and eliminating 50 generals. To put this in context, we have almost 1,000 generals and admirals, a number that has grown 13 percent in 15 years, even as the armed forces have shrunk. Every layer of Pentagon bureaucracy is much larger than it was at the height of the Cold War. Prof. Paul Light of New York University's Wagner School of Public Service notes that in 1960 we had 78 deputy assistant secretaries of defense. Today there are 530. Gates likes to point out that there are more musicians in U.S. military marching bands than members of the Foreign Service. In fact, the Pentagon has 10 times as many accountants as there are Foreign Service officers.

Any thoughts of broader reforms or even budget cuts seem inconceivable, despite the tremendous pressure on the federal budget. While some Democrats have taken up this cause, most Republicans are blindly opposed. They should take the time to read Gates's last two speeches, one to the Navy League, the other at the Eisenhower library.

Gates reveals himself to be an unabashed admirer of President Dwight Eisenhower (his portrait hangs behind Gates's desk). He respects Ike's restraint, his emphasis on the tradeoffs involved in funding the military, and his reluctance to create what he called a "military-industrial complex." "[Eisenhower understood] that even a superpower such as the United States—then near the zenith of its strength and prosperity relative to the rest of the world—did not have unlimited political, economic, and military resources. Expending them in one area—say, a protracted war in the developing world—would sap the strength available to do anything else," Gates reminded his audience at the Eisenhower library. "[He] was wary of seeing his beloved republic turn into a muscle-bound, garrison state—militarily strong but economically stagnant and strategically insolvent."

In the spirit of Ike, Gates asked in his Navy League speech: "Should we really be up in arms over a temporary projected shortfall of about 100 Navy and Marine strike fighters relative to the number of carrier wings when America's military possesses more than 3,200 tactical combat aircraft of all kinds? Does the number of warships we have and are building really put America at risk when the U.S. battle fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined, 11 of which belong to allies and partners? Is it a dire threat that by 2020 the United States will have only 20 times more advanced stealth fighters than China?"

Eisenhower's seriousness of purpose was reflected in more than just his military strategy. He was a true fiscal conservative, believing that government should run deficits during recessions but surpluses during recoveries. In 1960 his vice president, Richard Nixon, implored him to cut taxes to give the economy a temporary boost—and thus help Nixon's electoral prospects. Eisenhower declined, intent on leaving office with a budget surplus, which turned out to be the last one in more than three decades.

Robert Gates is a genuine conservative in Eisenhower's tradition. Unfortunately, between Gates and the painting behind him, there are only two of them in Washington these days.