Don't just cut defense

The Pentagon needs a trim, but there's more fat elsewhere

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Defense Secretary Robert Gates raised eyebrows and ruffled feathers Aug. 9 when he announced plans to shut down Joint Forces Command, a headquarters in southeastern Virginia at which more than 6,000 military personnel, civilians and defense contractors work.

The closure will devastate the economies of the Norfolk-Virginia Beach-Hampton Roads area, so Mr. Gates' announcement brought the predictable squeals from Virginia's politicians.

"I am concerned that the secretary of defense acted too hastily," said Sen. James Webb, D-Va., a much-decorated Marine in Vietnam. "I am also disappointed that the White House did not consult with members of the Virginia delegation prior to this announcement. At a time when we are still fighting two wars, joint interoperability is critical and requires a considerable degree of coordination. JFCOM has the expertise for orchestrating the provision of forces to meet combat contingencies.

"I have requested specific details from DoD regarding their legal justifications for circumventing base-closure statutes, as well as the actual data they used in making this decision since the information they have provided publicly has changed from day to day," Mr. Webb said.

There is something that doesn't seem right about cutting defense spending when we're in the midst of two wars. But even though I look askance at how the administration circumvented the rules with regard to base closing, I can't be critical of the decision itself.

Our military is, by far, the most efficient part of the federal government. But that is, alas, damning with faint praise. The Department of Defense, too, is bloated by bureaucracy.

The Joint Forces Command was established in 1999. It's a jumped-up version of the old Atlantic Command, which was the Navy's Atlantic fleet with some Army and Air Force staff officers thrown in.

Coordination among the services is important. That's why we have six unified combatant commands that are responsible for warfighting in the various regions of the world. JFCOM isn't one of those.

Joint Forces Command does some useful things. But it does them at considerable expense. I suspect it exists more to provide billets for otherwise superfluous senior officers than to fulfill a vital defense need. (Since 2001, flag officer positions in the military have increased by more than 100; senior civilian slots in the Department of Defense by 300.)

Secretary Gates is by far the most able of the Cabinet officers in the Obama administration (though this, too, may be damning with faint praise). I think he's short-changing the Navy and the Air Force, and I don't think he's doing as much as he should to reform an out-of-control procurement bureaucracy. But I think Bob Gates is a smart guy who is trying as hard as he can to preserve the fighting forces.

"Gates is breathtakingly willing to take on poisonous political interests, unscrupulous contractors and bloated institutions," wrote Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, a retired Army intelligence officer. "He may be the only senior official in our lifetimes who genuinely cares about both the troops and the taxpayers."

We're in a fiscal emergency. We have to watch what we spend even on vitally important things. So the question isn't why cut defense spending? It's why cut only defense spending? Why aren't the other Cabinet secretaries scouring their departments for cuts?

After all, the Constitution requires the federal government to "provide for the common defense." Nothing in it requires the federal government to bankrupt farmers in California's Central Valley on behalf of the delta smelt. (The little fish were getting sucked into water pumps so the pumps were shut down and farmers' fields left to wither.)

There is a lot more fat elsewhere in government than there is in the Defense Department. According to the Congressional Budget Office, President Barack Obama's failed stimulus alone cost more than the war in Iraq.

And while the need for soldiers to protect us is clear, the need for federal bureaucrats to tell us how much salt we may put on our food is less obvious.

So here's a modest proposal: Let's cut the budgets of nondefense federal agencies back to what they were in the 2007 fiscal year, the year the Democrats took over Congress. They weren't exactly starving then. (It's hard to remember now that most of us thought George W. Bush was a spendthrift.) Putting the bureaucrats on a diet is the key to recovering our fiscal health.


Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette and The (Toledo) Blade ( jkelly@post-gazette.com , 412 263-1476).


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