“Given America’s difficult economic circumstances and perilous fiscal condition, military spending on things large and small can and should expect closer, harsher scrutiny.”

If you think those are the words of some blue-state liberal, think again.

That was Defense Secretary Robert Gates in May, throwing down the gauntlet at a symbolic location, the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Texas.

His intended audience: a U.S. Congress addicted to military money.

It was President Dwight D. Eisenhower who warned, on his way out of office in 1961, of the expanding influence of the “military-industrial complex” in the American economy.

For the younger set, Eisenhower was the supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe during World War II, a five-star general who knew a thing or two about the nexus of military and political power.

Eisenhower died in 1969, but we doubt he would be much surprised to find the military-industrial complex alive and well and coming off a “gusher” of a decade.

Again, that’s Robert Gates’ word — gusher — in May as he promised to slow the flow of spending that has gone to military contractors, defense manufacturers and civilian military bureaucrats.

Gates has ordered Defense Department leaders to find savings of 2 or 3 percent per year — about $10 billion in an overall Pentagon budget of about $550 billion.

His goal would not be to cut defense spending, but to curb increases and shift more money to the troops actually fighting our wars.

It’s likely to be the toughest fight of Gates’ career, and he fired the first volley Monday — proposed elimination of the U.S. Joint Forces Command, which employs about 6,000 military and civilian bureaucrats in Virginia.

That has the powerful Virginia congressional delegation in a lather.

This, of course, is the pattern: fierce congressional delegation opposition to any reduction in military spending.

Congress usually defers to military leaders, but only until it comes to cutting spending in members’ home districts.

Which points to the root of the problem. There is nothing military about local military spending to a member of Congress. That money means jobs, campaign contributions and votes back home.

To hell with what the military says it wants or needs; your local congressman suddenly knows better.

But, at some point, all Americans need to ask themselves a few questions:

Do we really need a defense budget that totals — even before Iraq and Afghanistan spending — as much as the rest of the world’s defense spending combined?

Does it need to be nine times larger than the next largest military budget — China’s?

Do we need as many battleships as the next-largest 13 navies combined, 11 of which are considered our allies?

Can we truly sustain a defense budget that has increased an average of 10 percent per year and has almost doubled since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001?

Our own defense secretary, our expert on all matters military, says we cannot. Can Congress, which professes the importance of cutting budget deficits be convinced?

That’s the billion-dollar question.

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