Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- Budgets are the coldest of documents -- flat, gray realms of numbers and projections. But when referring to the origins of the recently proposed defense budget, Secretary Robert Gates, normally precise and analytical, speaks with an intensity that comes close to emotion. "What started me down this road was Walter Reed," the Army medical center where wounded soldiers were treated in squalid conditions. "There was a set of assumptions through the first several years of the war that it would be over very soon. So don't spend on a facility that would be closed."

Again and again -- on flawed body armor, the vulnerability of vehicles to roadside explosives, the insufficient number of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in Iraq -- Gates encountered a Pentagon focused on priorities other than fighting the irregular conflicts in which America is engaged. Iraq and Afghanistan were often treated as temporary distractions from the real military mission of preparing for future conventional wars. Whenever a problem emerged for "people in the field," Gates was amazed "how long and hard it was to remedy that problem."

The initial remedies were necessarily ad hoc, including mine-resistant vehicles and better intelligence. "In every case," Gates told me, "the problem had to be addressed by going outside the bureaucracy, creating something unique."

Gates' budget is a more systematic response -- his attempt to provide "a place at the table for the guys fighting the wars we are in." While downsizing or eliminating some expensive, high-tech programs, the budget would increase resources for health care, intelligence, reconnaissance, Special Forces, theater missile defenses, helicopters and UAVs. It is more of a shift than a revolution -- Gates estimates that only about 10 percent of the budget is devoted exclusively to irregular warfare -- but moving the balance in this direction is entirely necessary.

There are two broad objections to this budget. First, some argue that the total level of spending is insufficient. The success of the surge in Iraq has demonstrated that the size of our force matters when it comes to counterinsurgency operations. Also, the new budget does not expand the Army sufficiently to avoid the continued need for National Guard and reserve deployments.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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