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Cutting Pentagon waste is wise -- and brave

  • Robert Gates wants to cut a military command, limit growth of Pentagon spending
  • Fareed Zakaria says the move is needed and will face political opposition
  • He says defense spending soared after 9/11 to unsustainable levels
  • Zakaria: Pentagon culture is one of enormous waste, duplication

Editor's note: Fareed Zakaria is an author and foreign affairs analyst who hosts "Fareed Zakaria GPS" on CNN U.S. on Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET and CNN International at 2 and 10 p.m. Central European Time/5 p.m. Abu Dhabi/9 p.m. Hong Kong.

(CNN) -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates' plan to limit Pentagon spending is not only smart and necessary, it's also politically brave, according to analyst Fareed Zakaria.

Gates announced Monday a series of measures to limit the department's budget increase to 1 percent next year, including eliminating the U.S. Joint Forces Command based in Norfolk, Virginia. That state's two U.S. senators immediately criticized the plan, which Gates admitted faces political obstacles.

Zakaria told CNN that Gates was doing the right thing in seeking to bring down the historically high defense budget. He said Gates is politically the strongest member of President Obama's Cabinet, in part because as a Republican he draws support from both sides of the aisle in Congress.

"He's proving to be an extraordinarily effective defense secretary," Zakaria said. "He's using the space he's gained politically to do things that are important, that we desperately need to have done."

Video: Gates: Military cuts planned
Video: Support for U.S. military cuts

The author and host of CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS" spoke to CNN on Wednesday. Here is an edited transcript:

CNN: In announcing his plans to limit spending at the Pentagon, Gates said, "The culture of endless money that has taken hold must be replaced by a culture of savings and restraint." What lies behind this view he's taking?

Fareed Zakaria: Well Gates has actually been concerned about this problem for some time. ... He previously cut systems and proposed more significant budget cuts than anyone at the Pentagon has in the last 20 years. What I think he's trying to do is to get the Pentagon to understand that it is genuinely now in the post-9/11 and the post Iraq-Afghanistan war era. ...

The shock of 9/11 opened the floodgates for defense and homeland security spending, and those floodgates are closing. The Iraq war and the Afghanistan war produced a kind of unquestioning increase in funding, because while the country is at war, nobody wanted to shortchange the Pentagon on anything.

Both those factors are now winding down. We're a long way away from 9/11, and both wars are going to be scaled back one way or the other in the next few years. And Gates is trying to get the Pentagon to understand that it's going to have to do more with less, which is frankly both brave and intelligent of him.

It is absolutely necessary, it's intellectually right and it's politically brave, which is something you can't often say about something coming out of Washington.

CNN: What about one of his specific proposals, which is closing the Joint Forces Command?

Zakaria: I think it makes absolute sense. It's not entirely clear what advantages that command had and as far as I can tell, there's enormous duplication. You have Centcom, you have so many of these joint commands. ... It is largely one more layer atop an already multilayered organization. There is political problem in that it employs 5,000 people in Virginia. But from the point of view of any kind of advantage to national security or the functioning of the Pentagon, as far as I can tell, there's absolutely none.

CNN: What's the state of the defense budget overall?

Zakaria: This is the largest government bureaucracy in the world; it's probably the largest bureaucracy in the world, certainly in terms of dollars spent. You're talking about something that's consuming something in the range of $700 billion a year. You have three million people.

It's a cradle-to-grave quasisocialist system, where everything is taken care of by the government, from health care to pensions, to where you live. And the level of inefficiency and duplication is just staggering. People in the Pentagon don't even know how much they spend on things. If you tally it all up, some of the expenditures are eye-popping. ... What this is doing is an attempt to bring some sense of cost-benefit analysis and rationalism to this problem.

CNN: What's irrational about the size of the budget now?

Zakaria: People don't realize this, but now, in constant dollars, the defense budget is 30 percent higher than in 1968, the peak of the Vietnam War. It's higher than at any point in American postwar history in real dollars. It has also created a mismatch, a misalignment of American foreign policy.

The defense budget is 13 times larger than all civilian foreign policy budgets combined; that is, the State Department, USAID, the Commerce Department, everything put together. There are more members of the military in marching bands than there are foreign service officers in the United States government.

The Defense Department spends more money on fuel than the State Department's entire operating cost. ... So the point is you just have enormous waste in this system. Everything is layered on everything else. The Army has its own air force, and the Navy has its own air force and this goes on and on unendingly. And what Gates is trying to do, and he's really the first defense secretary to try it in a long time, is to force some degree of common-sense reform to the budgeting process.

CNN: Was Donald Rumsfeld trying to revolutionize the Pentagon, too, when he was defense secretary?

Zakaria: Rumsfeld tried to do something slightly different. He wanted a very high-tech military with fewer soldiers, and he ran aground on two fronts. One is he was an extremely bad bureaucratic manager and bumped up against the service chiefs, the generals, who despised him and actively worked to undercut him through Congress. And the second was that 9/11 happened, and all of a sudden the United States needed all the kinds of things -- traditional, conventional forces -- that Rumsfeld had been dismissing.

But in general, Rumsfeld's idea, that the military needs to be more geared toward the 21st century, leaner and more effective was the right one. Ironically, having been a CEO, he just turned out to be an extremely bad proponent of that view, never was able to get anywhere with it and very quickly reversed himself on lots of it once 9/11 took place.

CNN: Gates' proposals ran into opposition from senators from Virginia. What's the likelihood of the political opposition quashing his plans?

Zakaria: Some of what he's suggesting he can actually do without congressional approval, but yes there are some parts of it that Congress is going to have to go along with. And this is really frankly a test of how serious we are as a country and whether Congress can govern.

We can't keep spending $700 billion on the military unendingly and have these numbers go up so that we would be spending a trillion dollars on the military budget in an era where we do not face a serious great power competitor.

This is precisely the time you would want to invest those defense dollars in the technologies and research of the future or pay down those enormous deficits that we have. If we can't come down from this astronomical figure to something more sensible, it tells us something about our ability to govern ourselves and Congress' ability to do anything hard.

CNN: What about the economic impact of cutting spending at a time of nearly 10 percent unemployment?

Zakaria: This becomes an argument to not do any kind of reform of government. The reality is that a lot of what he's describing is going to be phased in over three years, if not more, so I don't think it's going to have some seismic effect on the economy.

The truth is that we can't sustain it forever, we need to start getting serious now. Politics will ensure that a lot of this is delayed and watered down anyway.

I don't think the great worry here is that we're going to be too drastic. The real worry is that this is going to end up being a charade and a shadow of what Gates proposed [that] will have very little impact on the culture of the Pentagon, which remains a culture of enormous duplication and waste.