PHOENIX — President Barack Obama chastised the defense industry and a freespending Congress on Monday for wasting tax dollars "with doctrine and weapons better suited to fight the Soviets on the plains of Europe than insurgents in the rugged terrain of Afghanistan."
"Twenty years after the Cold War ended, this is simply not acceptable. It's irresponsible. Our troops and our taxpayers deserve better," he told a national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "If Congress sends me a defense bill loaded with a bunch of pork, I will veto it."
Turning to the two foreign wars engaging the United States, Obama spoke of fierce fighting against Taliban and other insurgents leading up to Thursday's national elections in Afghanistan. He said U.S. troops are working to secure polling places so the elections can go forward and Afghans can choose their own future.
Attaining that peaceful future "will not be quick, nor easy," Obama said.
He said the new U.S. strategy recognizes that al-Qaida has moved its bases into remote areas of Pakistan and that military power alone will not win that war. At the same time, confronting insurgents in Afghanistan "is fundamental to the defense of our people."
As to Iraq, Obama reiterated his commitment to remove all combat brigades by the end of next August and to remove remaining troops from the country by the end of 2011. U.S. troops withdrew from cities and other urban areas in June.
Obama, in his third appearance before the VFW but his first as president, got hearty applause and standing ovations as he spoke at the Phoenix Convention Center to several thousand veterans, though only about two-thirds of the seats were filled.
That may have been partly because he started his speech nearly an hour before it was scheduled. Aides say he was anxious to get back to Washington after a four-day trip out West that was part family vacation and part business, including the VFW speech and town hall meetings in Montana and Colorado to push his health care agenda.
Obama told the veterans that overhaul would not change how they get their medical services – and that nobody in Washington is talking about taking away or trimming their benefits.
Instead, he said he's instructed senior aides to work with the secretary of veterans affairs to come up with better ways to serve veterans.
Obama said he wants each of the 57 regional VA offices "to come up with the best ways of doing business, harnessing the best information technologies, breaking through the bureaucracy."
He said the government would then pay to put the best ideas into action "all with a simple mission – cut these backlogs, slash those wait times and deliver your benefits sooner."
Even at a time when Obama needs as much congressional support as he can summon for his health care priorities, he spared no party from his harsh critique of business-as-usual by some in the military establishment, some defense contractors and some lawmakers who write defense budgets.
He assailed "indefensible no-bid contracts that cost taxpayers billions and make contractors rich" and lashed out at "the special interests and their exotic projects that are years behind schedule and billions over budget."
He took on "the entrenched lobbyists pushing weapons that even our military says it doesn't want" and blistered lawmakers in Washington whose impulse he said was "to protect jobs back home building things we don't need (with) a cost that we can't afford."
He said such waste was unacceptable as the country fights two wars while mired in a deep recession.
"It's inexcusable. It's an affront to the American people and to our troops. And it's time for it to stop," Obama said.
As a candidate and as president, Obama has held up the weapons-buying process as the perfect example of what's wrong with Washington and why the public doesn't trust its leaders. He essentially picked a political fight with a large part of the congressional-military-industrial alliance.
He sounded much like his campaign rival of a year ago, Arizona Sen. John McCain. And, while in Arizona, Obama praised McCain for seeking to rein in costs and reform the weapons-buying process.
In seeking to overhaul the weapons-buying process, Obama hopes to make good on a campaign promise to change the way Washington does business. But it certainly won't be easy to do; lawmakers protecting jobs at home are certain to put up enormous fights over Obama's efforts to stop production on weapons like the F-22 fighter jet.
Despite objections and veto threats from the White House, a $636 billion Pentagon spending bill was approved by a 400-30 vote in the House late last month. It contains money for a much-criticized new presidential helicopter fleet, cargo jets that the Pentagon says aren't needed and an alternative engine for the next-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that military leaders say is a waste of money.
The Senate will deal with the spending measure in September.
The president laid out a vision of a nimble, well-armed and multilingual fighting force of the future, not one that was built to fight land battles against the Soviets in Europe.
"Because in the 21st century, military strength will be measured not only by the weapons our troops carry, but by the languages they speak and the cultures they understand," he said.
He praised McCain for joining him and Defense Secretary Robert Gates in opposing unneeded defense spending.
Shortly after Obama won the White House, McCain had pointedly suggested there was no need for the Marine Corps to bring on newer helicopters to ferry the president at a cost of billions of dollars.
On the subject of the helicopters, Obama told the veterans: "Now, maybe you've heard about this. Among its other capabilities, it would let me cook a meal while under nuclear attack. Now, let me tell you something. If the United States of America is under nuclear attack, the last thing on my mind will be whipping up a snack."