Michael Gerson

In an interview in his Pentagon office, Gates gingerly calls this a "legitimate debate." But he counters that the size of the military has been increasing over the last several years. "Am I saying this is the right number? Maybe, or maybe not. Having increased by 100,000, we might take a pause and see if we can sustain it." Gates argues that the inclusion of more spending in the regular defense budget, instead of in emergency supplemental spending bills, is essential to sustainability -- "so it doesn't disappear when supplementals disappear."

Gates is unapologetic about cutting back on big-ticket items such as the Army's Future Combat Systems. The program's lightly armored vehicles, he notes, have 18-inch clearances and flat bottoms -- perfect targets for roadside explosives. On the other hand, Gates' missile defense cuts are relatively small, especially compared to the declared intention of some congressional Democrats to eliminate the Missile Defense Agency entirely.

The second objection concerns the rise of China, which some believe may lead to a conventional conflict. Gates is not dismissive of China, which is expanding its naval influence and focusing resources on space- and cyber-warfare. But he contends that the "Chinese are being selective in what they are doing. They learned from the Soviet Union, which we bankrupted in an arms race. ... They are looking at asymmetrical areas, so they don't get engaged in a full-scale arms race." And this allows America to be selective in our response. He argues that the proposed "mix" of F-22 and F-35 fighters, along with advanced UAVs, will be an effective counter, and that massive ground forces, in this case, are irrelevant. "Realistically, when would we have proposed to send a large ground army into Asia? In every case, that has been very painful."

Some Republicans want to polarize the budget debate. The Obama administration, according to Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., is "willing to sacrifice the lives of American military men and women for the sake of domestic programs favored by President Obama."

In this case, the charge rings with irresponsibility. While the total defense budget should be larger in a time of war, it focuses resources and attention precisely where they are most needed: on our war fighters in Iraq, in Afghanistan -- and at places like Walter Reed.

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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