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Mr. Gates, fix the budget plan first

Marketplace Staff Dec 5, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Robert Gates had his turn in the Senate hot seat today. The President’s pick for defense secretary said the United States isn’t winning in Iraq. But it’s not losing either. He declined to declare when or whether he might recommend bringing the troops home.

The war in Iraq has been funded mostly through emergency budget requests. Half a trillion dollars has been spent that way in Iraq and Afghanistan. Commentator Gordon Adams says there might be an even higher price to pay if the new secretary doesn’t restore some sanity to Pentagon planning.

GORDON ADAMS: Think of the Pentagon as the head of a household trying to live within the family’s means. But that person just doesn’t keep track. No clue how that earned money was spent last year, just the knowledge it’s gone. Ditto this year. The mortgage needed paying, the parents needed a vacation, and no one wanted to cook, so the family went out a lot.

That sounds like a lot of us, which is why some people end up sleeping in cars. But that sense of vulnerability is much more serious when it comes to matters of national defense.

We’ve been spending billions on Iraq and Afghanistan this way for the past five years, and nobody has a good handle on what the spending was, what it is, or what it will be.

So what happens if suddenly the money runs out or Congress cuts the budget and we haven’t covered our basic priorities? All of a sudden, we have to cut back.

Do we chop the Army’s size in a hurry to fit the smaller budget? Then, what do we do if there’s another blow-up like Iraq, or worse, Korea?

What happens to our ability to handle the next Katrina when we have nothing set aside? What happens if we need to protect Taiwan, but don’t have enough ships in the region?

Do we stop training troops, sailing ships, driving tanks, or repairing our used equipment because the training and repair cupboards are bare?

Do we just stop the war in Iraq or the campaign against the Taliban? Then what kind of chaos hits the region?

When we don’t do a proper budget, we lose control of these choices and head for less of a military than we need or the wrong military, altogether.

What are the priorities when the money no longer flows freely? Right now we don’t even know how to answer that question.

Five years of living high, when we mixed our regular money that covered the mortgage and utilities with so-called emergency money — the vacations and dinners out — has broken the best budget planning and reporting system the country has ever had — the one at the Pentagon.

And when the bills come due, we might just be more vulnerable even in our own beds at night.

RYSSDAL: Gordon Adams is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.

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