WASHINGTON -- With the end of his distinguished career in government set for late June, Defense Secretary Robert Gates would be justified in taking a slow, satisfying victory lap. Gates focused the Pentagon on fighting current wars instead of procuring shiny new weapons for unlikely future conflicts. He backed the right strategy and generals in Iraq -- a nation that the anti-Iraq War president now concedes as demonstrating "the promise of a multiethnic, multisectarian democracy." Against considerable opposition within the administration, Gates prevailed upon President Obama to give a serious counterinsurgency campaign a shot at success in Afghanistan.
But instead of collecting laurels, Gates has used his last weeks in office to issue a direct warning to his successor, to Congress and to the president. In response to proposals for deep but vaguely defined defense cuts, Gates asks: "If you want to change the size of the budget in a dramatic way, what risk are you prepared to take in terms of future threats to the country?"
The administration and many in Congress seem to view defense as an easy target for across-the-board reductions. Gates is waging his final war against such abstraction. Decisions on defense spending, in his view, must be based on strategy, not on budget mathematics. "Right now, the process is just the reverse," he argues. "Everybody's doing math and not strategy."
The most obvious defense cuts have already been made. Gates has gotten rid of big-ticket weapons programs criticized for their cost, performance and relevance -- the Marine expeditionary fighting vehicle, the next generation Navy cruiser, the Air Force search and rescue helicopter, the airborne missile defense laser, the infamous presidential helicopter. He limited the purchase of F-22s to a realistic level. He killed the Army Future Combat Systems, which used vehicles that were thin-skinned, flat-bottomed IED magnets.
Reductions get harder from here. Some of America's most expansive military commitments are not made in the Middle East but rather in the military's health care, compensation and retirement systems. Health costs in the defense budget have risen from $19 billion in 2001 to more than $50 billion today. The military retirement system is appropriately generous. But the possibility of retiring at age 37 with full benefits -- following 20 years of service -- seems generous beyond normal bounds.