As the Bush administration’s mass exodus gets underway, President-elect Obama is hearing from a lot of quarters that his cabinet should include one key holdover. According to this thinking, he should leave the Pentagon in the hands of its current Secretary, Robert Gates. Fortunately, the new president will have in-hand an easy way to judge whether or not this is a good idea.
A large bipartisan cohort thinks it is. Gates has earned much respect for taking, and repeatedly arguing, a position highly unusual for a Defense secretary: that his own department has too much power and influence. In a July speech he warned that a “creeping militarization” has overtaken U.S. foreign policy. “Broadly speaking, when it comes to America’s engagement with the rest of the world, it is important that the military is — and is clearly seen to be — in a supporting role to civilian agencies,” he said.

A recent Washington Post op-ed piece, “Why We Can’t Afford to Lose Robert Gates,” emphasizes his support for “beefed-up diplomatic and development capabilities” as essential tools of U.S. security. It mentions what he has already done to put this doctrine into practice — for example, using his forces last summer to convey 500 humanitarian workers, doctors, and development experts to six Latin American countries. And it cites approvingly Gates’ contention “that over the long term, we cannot kill or capture our way to victory” in the fight against terrorists.

But on one key measure of his resolve, the jury is still out. In addition to criticizing his own department’s outsized role, Gates has argued it routinely comes out too far ahead in budget negotiations, saying, “[f]unding for nonmilitary foreign affairs programs…remains disproportionately small relative to what we spend on the military.” He has observed more than once that the entire diplomatic corps, about 6,500 people, is smaller than the staff of a single aircraft carrier group. This is not a message we are used to hearing from our defense secretaries. And he has been admirably frank about why this disparity exists: “Diplomacy simply does not have the built-in, domestic constituency of defense programs.”

But here’s what hasn’t got much notice: When he had the chance to fix this, he didn’t. In the FY 2009 budget request — the last he will be officially responsible for — he made the problem worse by adding $36 billion to his budget. This increase, as former Centcom commander Anthony Zinni noted, is roughly equivalent to the entire budget for International Affairs.

In congressional testimony following the unveiling of this budget Gates went after a few cherished weapons systems that, he pointed out, are useless for his administration’s War on Terror. “The reality is,” he said, “we are fighting two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the F-22 [fighter jet] has not performed a single mission in either theater.” So why did he order up 20 more of them, at $339 million a copy? He was preserving “the option” for the next president. In other words, he punted.

So how can the new president tell whether, in a new administration, Secretary Gates would actually deliver on his rhetorical support for closing the gap between military and non-military spending on foreign engagement?

He can tell because by inauguration time, the new administration’s FY 2010 defense budget will already be mostly in the can. The next president will have to submit his first budget a little more than a week after he takes office. That timeframe pretty much ensures, as in past presidential transition years, it will deviate little from the one that will come pre-assembled by the previous team.

So if the president-elect sits down with Secretary Gates to talk about keeping him on, he needs to ask not just “‘About that spending imbalance — what would you do this time?” but also “Let’s take a look at what you just did.”

If Gates’ FY 2010 budget numbers come in higher than those for 2009, then President Obama will know all that good talk about closing the gap, and demilitarizing U.S. foreign policy, was just a lot of smoke.

Miriam Pemberton is a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, writing and speaking on demilitarization issues for its Foreign Policy In Focus project.

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