President Obama took his zeal for reform to the defense establishment Monday, pledging that he would cut wasteful spending at the Pentagon and overhaul the care that veterans receive in an effort to give "our troops the support they need."
Pentagon budgets and reform of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) might not inflame the American populace as healthcare reform does, put they are two massive bureaucracies that will not easily be moved. Yet in highlighting both during his speech to veterans in Phoenix Monday, Mr. Obama signaled that the status quo is not acceptable and that there is a moral imperative to undertake change.
Speaking of profligate Pentagon spending, he said: "If a project doesn't support our troops, we will not fund it. If a system doesn't perform, we will terminate it.... We will do right by our troops and taxpayers, we will build the 21st century military we need."
Likewise, he vowed to transform the VA. "Caring for those affected by [the injuries of today's wars] is a defining purpose of my budget," he said.
They represent two distinct points on a central theme: The Pentagon must be reformed to help troops win America's wars, and the VA must be resourced accordingly to help troops when they come home.
To recast the VA, Obama has hired Eric Shinseki, a former Army general fired under President Bush in the lead up to the war in Iraq. He is also bringing more resources to the agency: the current budget proposal for the VA contains the largest increase in funding in 30 years. The intent is to reduce waiting times for veterans seeking help, expand coverage, and hire more case managers to process claims.
The head of one veterans group welcomed Obama's reform effort. But one of the best ways Obama could support veterans is by remaining committed to the mission in Afghanistan and Iraq, says Peter Hegseth, chairman of the Vets for Freedom.
"We believe even more so in victory on the battlefield as we do the size of the VA budget," he added.
The White House's reform attempts come at a time when the American public remains supportive of the military – and particularly of veterans – despite war fatigue. Obama stressed this point Monday: "Less than 1 percent wears the uniform, and that 1 percent ... have borne the overwhelming burden of our security. In fact, perhaps never in American history have so few protected so many."
So far, Obama's ongoing push to reform the Pentagon has prevailed. Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have sparred with some members of Congress about weapons systems like the F-22 stealth fighter, known as the Raptor. But he and Mr. Gates have painted advocates of such technologies as making choices that rob resources from troops.
"Twenty years after the Cold War ended, this is not simply unacceptable," Obama said Monday. "It is irresponsible. And our troops and taxpayers deserve better."
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