Ike, Revisited

What would Eisenhower do?

This commentary, from last week’s Boston Globe, correctly compares and illustrates the differences in viewpoints of the outgoing president (and former WWII general) and incoming president (and ex Navy hero) John F. Kennedy when it came to the nation’s military.

Dwight Eisenhower famously warned America to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” His concern: those in position to inflate the need for military buildup inevitably would do so.

Kennedy, informed by the ongoing Cold War and the need to look strong in the face of a belligerent Kremlin, took an opposite approach, asserting the US would commit anything and everything to “assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

This debate is particularly relevant today because the staggering debt the US has incurred, much of it in the past decade, has renewed calls for budget cuts. And defense is an obvious target: military spending made up 24%, or $895 billion, of this year’s $3.7 trillion budget, and is forecast to rise 3.7% in fiscal 2011.

So even if the percentage of the defense spend over time has been fairly consistent with overall discretionary expenditures and, measured against the GDP (roughly 4%), consistent with its average of the past 20 years (not to mention 100 basis points lower than the average over the past 40), it’s such a big number — almost matching the rest of the world’s defense spending combined and more than nine times larger than the military budget of China — it was inevitable someone would eventually take it on.

So we now stand with Defense Secretary Gates Robert Gates looking for cuts even among the most sacred of sacred cows, the military brass. That by itself isn’t troubling.

More worrisome would be cuts to blue sky research. And while I’ve opined my belief that the Obama Administration is cognizant of the need for military spending not just for the obvious reasons of defense but also the less-obvious need to compel next-generation research, the current reading of the tea leaves suggests some possibly big cuts are coming.

The truth is, much of the US PCB industry relies heavily on hearty annual defense budget. One could argue, with the preponderance of evidence in support, that sans the US military, the domestic bare board industry would effectively cease to exist. Do we start weaning our spending on weapons even if it means putting people out of work?

This has strong echoes of 1961. As the Globe writes, “Most distressing to [Eisenhower] was that Kennedy had gone into factory towns and proclaimed that Eisenhower’s stinginess on defense had cost American jobs.”

President Obama is lucky in the sense that Gates is not job climbing. His next job will be babysitting his grandkids — and that career will start in just a few months. He can, as journalists like to say, speak truth to power, without worrying about offending either his boss (Obama) or his subordinates (the entire US Armed Forces).

Secretary Gates sounds an awful lot like a modern day Eisenhower. Will his vision be realized? And will the potential cost be greater than the reward?