Bush-era lessons remain relevant for Obama, Hagel as they prepare Pentagon’s budget


President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle Obama bid farewell to President George W. Bush and his wife Laura Bush as they leave the U.S Capitol after Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States in 2009. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
Walter Pincus
Reporter February 17

In his final meeting with members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in December 2008, President George W. Bush encouraged them “to make his last defense budget very forward-leaning in terms of modernization, re-equipping our forces after the two wars and funding ‘unplanned contingencies,’ ” former defense secretary Robert M. Gates wrote in his book “Duty.”

Bush’s encouragement led to a $581 billion core Defense Department proposed budget for fiscal 2010 — $57 billion above the originally projected figure, Gates wrote.

As a result, “more than a few Obama folks — with some justification — thought the Bush administration had sandbagged them, seeking to make Obama look weak on defense, as he inevitably would have to pare back the budget,” Gates added.

Since the heady Bush years, the Pentagon has been on a budgetary downslope, a change from the years immediately following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when the military services got almost everything they wanted, with few questions asked.

For example, from fiscal 2003 to fiscal 2007, the Defense core budget grew by more than $100 billion. It went up $46 billion in fiscal 2008, and Bush’s fiscal 2009 request raised that another $35.9 billion. The final Bush request for fiscal 2010, which was supposed to grow only by about $13 billion, would have added another $70 billion over 2009.

Those figures do not include the supplemental money for fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the so-called Overseas Contingency Operations account that in those years added another $100 billion.

The Defense Department was floating in money during the Bush years, and when President Obama arrived it was planning as if that would never change.

Gates takes some of the responsibility, saying, “I should have stopped the additions encouraged by Bush.”

He was determined to rebuild the 2010 proposed Defense budget for Obama through a process that would “weed out over-budget, overdue, or unjustifiable programs.”

Gates describes the subsequent 2009 battles in the Pentagon and with Congress to slice that bloated Bush fiscal 2010 core Defense budget — eventually down to the $533.8 billion that Obama sent to Congress in May 2009.

“Every element of the Pentagon had built its budget down to the last dime on the basis of a $581 billion request, and when we had to develop a real-world budget tens of billions of dollars lower, there was all manner of screaming and yowling out of the Pentagon about a huge ‘cut,’ ” Gates said.

Gates’s tale has a message for today as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Obama prepare to introduce their fiscal 2015 Defense budget on March 4.

It is projected at $521.4 billion. In 2008, the Congressional Budget Office projected that at the rate the Bush Defense budget was going, the Pentagon’s core fiscal 2015 budget would be $677 billion.

Gates would have budget problems with the Obama administration as the years went on, and he tried to protect the increases the Pentagon needed, but its Bush-years spending habits were a problem.

Budget-cutting is one of several stories the former defense secretary relates about the Bush-Obama transition period that has relevancy today.

Criticism of the Obama administration’s step-up of criminal investigations of classified information leaks to reporters has its roots in the transition period, Gates notes.

●On Jan. 7, 2009, Gates learned from his press secretary that the New York Times was going to publish an article saying that there was “a covert program intended to delay the Iranian [nuclear enrichment] program” and that the United States had turned down a 2008 request for bunker-busting bombs and permission to overfly Iraq to hit Iran’s nuclear site at Natanz, 160 miles south of Tehran.

Gates had suggested that the White House call the newspaper’s top editor to try to stop publication of the article, but apparently that was not done, according to him. The article was published Jan. 11.

Obama was briefed on the background of the leak, which occurred before he took office, and “a month later [after he was sworn in as president] Obama was still so angry about the leaks . . . that he told me he wanted a criminal investigation.”

The probe of the so-called Stuxnet program is still ongoing.

●Gates also discloses the secret negotiations before the 2008 election that led to his agreement to be the first defense secretary to remain in office with a president from the other party.

When a month before the election Gates was told that Obama wanted to talk to him, Gates said he put it off until after the vote and sent word to Bush that he had been approached. He was told that Bush “was very pleased and hoped that if I was asked I would stay.”

One key was Gates sending eight questions to Obama in mid-October that he needed to be answered before he would accept the job. Just days before the election, Gates was told by Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who was acting as a middleman, that Obama read the questions and “will want to talk right after the election.”

They were to meet Nov. 10 at 3:30 p.m. in a conference room at the fire station near the General Aviation terminal at Reagan National Airport. Gates was early, Obama 25 minutes late. With jackets off, they went down the list of Gates’s questions.

“Why do you want me to stay?”

Obama’s reply: It was Gates’s performance, and as president he would need stability in Defense matters while he focused on the economy.

How long?

Obama: “Let’s leave it completely open publicly, with the private understanding about a year.”

Gates: “We do not know each other. Are you prepared to trust me from day one and include me in your innermost councils on national security matters?”

Obama: “I wouldn’t ask you to stay if I didn’t trust you. You’ll be in on all the major issues and decisions — and the minor ones, too, if you want.”

There were also questions about national security staffing and the Defense budget.

Obama said if he had to make cuts in domestic agencies he could not “leave Defense untouched,” but there would beno deep cuts.”

Gates also needed to know whether there was flexibility in meeting Obama’s goals in Iraq to preserve gains.

Obama replied that he was prepared to be felixible, adding, “I’m no peacenik.”

The meeting went on for 50 minutes and ended with an agreement “for about a year,” along with a handshake.

Gates stayed more than two years.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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