In his presidential farewell address in 1961, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower warned about "unwarranted influence" of the "military-industrial complex" that grew out of World War II and the Korean War.
Eisenhower's caution rings with special relevance today as Defense Secretary Robert Gates pushes a controversial budget for next year that caps or scraps expensive weapons programs and shifts spending away from large-scale conventional wars toward anti-insurgency "irregular" ones, such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But Mr. Gates's plan may not make it over the ramparts of defense-industry lobbyists. And members of Congress with military-related businesses in their districts are already launching missiles at the proposal, calling it a jobs killer.
The secretary is actually up against a vast industrial-congressional complex, with intertwined and entrenched interests. Over the decades, the defense industry has spread into so many congressional districts that it's virtually impossible to shut anything down without a Hooah! battle cry from key lawmakers. The targeted F-22 fighter jet, for instance, is assembled with components built in 44 states.
No matter what one thinks of the Gates budget, the military-industrial-congressional network actually undermines national security. It encourages waste, as federal funds feed military lobbies that in turn feed politicians who keep the funds flowing – regardless. Federal campaign contributions from defense-related donors have nearly doubled since 2000.
The nexus also encourages lawmakers to look at national security from an ant's vantage instead of a bird's eye view, as members of Congress watch out for their own patch of ground.
As for the budget proposal itself, it's being criticized as either too harsh in program cuts or not harsh enough. That signals Gates may be traveling a middle ground that deserves consideration. His instincts are right as he attempts to give a permanent place in the budget for the kinds of wars the US is actually fighting. At the same time he's trying to stop waste, avoid technology overreach, and scale back some conventional systems that give the country more capability than it needs.
Part of the Gates sales pitch is that, taken as a whole, the budget prepares the US for a conventional war in the future while strengthening its ability to fight today's unconventional wars. He breaks down total military spending (which would increase 4 percent overall) into easy-to-understand categories: 50 percent for conventional wars, 40 percent for conventional and irregular ones, and 10 percent for irregular.
The divvying up is reasonable, as is his hope that "members of Congress will rise above parochial interests and consider what is in the best interest of the nation as a whole."
Reasonable, perhaps, but not likely to convince lawmakers who, in the past, have needed independent commissions to blame for base closings because they couldn't accept the responsibility themselves.
If Gates hopes to emerge as a victor on the Hill, he'll have to directly counter the arguments of lawmakers who champion certain weapons in the name of national security but who really only want to defend jobs.
He can make a strong case on both jobs and security with the stealth fighter, the F-22. That program employs 24,000 and will go down to about 11,000 in 2011 (the original plan was to build 183 planes; Gates proposes adding four more planes before halting the program altogether). But he will boost the number of F-35s (also a stealth aircraft). That will increase jobs from 38,000 now to 82,000 in 2011. Militarily, the F-22 is not even being used in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Gates may not have the same military experience that gave Gen. Eisenhower credibility. But he does have a long history serving eight presidents and a lifetime in national security. That it is he who is making these recommendations – with the backing of the various armed forces – should count for something.
Ultimately, Congress responds to public pressure. A popular President Obama may have to crank that up on behalf of "change" at the Pentagon. As Eisenhower concluded, "Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together."