06/13/2011 06:20 pm ET Updated Aug 13, 2011

From Gates to Panetta: Room for Improvement

At last Thursday's confirmation hearings for Leon Panetta's nomination to serve as Secretary of Defense, one question loomed over the proceedings: will he be as good as Robert Gates? The assumption behind the question -- an assumption shared by virtually every member of the Senate Armed Services Committee -- was that Gates has been one of the most effective leaders in the history of the department. Would that it were so.

If Gates were all he's made out to be, Panetta's job would be much, much easier. But in reality, Panetta will need to undo some of Gates' most notable policies if he is to have any hope of bringing defense spending into line with new strategic and fiscal realities.

As a former head of the White House Office of Management and Budget, Panetta is well-equipped to carry out the first major task left undone by Gates: truth in budgeting. Gates has repeatedly made claims about savings in Pentagon spending that don't stand up to scrutiny. For example, he frequently repeats the mantra that he has saved over $300 billion in long-term spending by eliminating, scaling back, or capping key weapons programs. But these "savings" are largely illusory. Some of them involve claims about programs that were already slated to be terminated, while others involve shifting funds from an old program to a newer one, yielding little or no reduction in overall spending.

As longtime budget analyst Winslow Wheeler of the Center for Defense Information has noted, even the Pentagon's own reporting reveals that there are more major weapons programs in place now than there were when Robert Gates took the helm as the Obama administration's defense secretary, and their cumulative price tag is higher as well.

Hopefully, when Panetta announces a cut in spending it will actually be a cut, not just a shift from one expensive program to another.

The second key task for Panetta is related to the first, since it involves truth in advertising. There is no way to make significant cuts in long-term defense spending without cutting back on the missions we expect our armed forces to carry out. Cutting a wasteful practice here or an unnecessary weapons system there simply won't get the job done. Yet the first major defense assessment carried out by Gates -- known as the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) -- actually increased the number of missions our military is expected to carry out, including everything from large scale counterinsurgency and counterterrorism to humanitarian intervention, disaster relief and provision of development assistance by commanders in the field.

It's true that the Pentagon is undertaking a new review of defense strategy as part of the president's proposal to cut $400 billion in security spending over 12 years. But the review is being carried out by the same individuals who did the QDR, using largely the same assumptions. So don't expect this process alone to lead to a more focused approach to utilizing our military.

It should also be noted that the $400 billion savings number is a vague promise, not a concrete proposal. In response to questions from Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI), the Obama administration has so far refused to say how much of the $400 billion in security-related cuts would come from the Pentagon or how much of the proposed savings would come from the FY2012 budget.

Ironically, one of the best ways for Panetta to help the president develop a truly new defense strategy would be to act on some of Gates' best rhetoric. For example, Gates has suggested that any defense secretary who recommends another major counterinsurgency effort like the wars being conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan should "have their head examined." If Panetta were to take that statement to heart, he could de-emphasize counterinsurgency and nation building, and cut back the size of our armed forces accordingly. Targeted counter-terrorism operations like the one that killed Osama bin Laden and numerous other al Qaeda leaders do not require large numbers of "boots on the ground." And as the U.S. troop presence in Iraq moves towards zero and the president starts to make good on his pledge to (slowly, perhaps) scale back in Afghanistan, there will be ample room to cut the size of the force without putting our troops in jeopardy.

Another area where Panetta could profit from following Gates' words, if not deeds, is increasing the resources made available to the State Department. Gates was the first Secretary of Defense to acknowledge the need to give State more resources, but he was careful to say that these resources should not come out of the Pentagon's budget. But in fact, they should. There are many instances in which diplomacy and carefully crafted security assistance efforts can achieve far more than force or the threat of force. Funding the State Department while modestly scaling back the Pentagon would be an effective approach to providing more security to our nation for less money.

There is no question that Leon Panetta will have his work cut out for him. But making good on Robert Gates's unfulfilled promises will be a good place to start.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.