On putting your money where your mouth is…

by Tom Donnelly

Speaking at the Jacksonville Naval Air Station yesterday, President Obama — in addition to insisting he wouldn’t be rushed into a decision about strategy and troop levels in Afghanistan — told the assembled sailors, “To make sure you can meet the missions we ask of you, we’re increasing the defense budget.”

This may — repeat, may — be more than a recycling of propaganda from this spring, when the administration shifted $10 billion from planned wartime supplemental spending into the baseline defense budget and called in an increase.  Word coming out of the Pentagon indicates that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has told the White House that the defense topline for 2011, roughly $550 billion, won’t be enough.  The early betting is, too, that Gates, who previously has been a can-do front-man for Obama’s cuts in Pentagon spending, will be able to convince the White House, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, ultimately to agree.

One can only wish that Gates had done this a year ago.  But in a year when, as the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday, the budget for the Education Department rose by 209 — yes, 209 — percent and for the Environmental Protection Agency by 146 percent, it’s been the Defense Department forced to make “tough choices” like canceling the F-22 and Future Combat Systems programs or doing little to increase the size of, and thereby lessen the strains on, the Army and Marine Corps.

So perhaps the president’s promise was more than a feel-good, throwaway line before a military audience.  And maybe Gates, who has given the administration a military gravitas that it would otherwise lack, will stand firm.  Certainly, the coming budget year, coming in the wake of the president’s decision on Afghanistan and accompanied by the release of the Quadrennial Defense Review, is shaping up as a watershed moment, not just for this government but for the nation and our role in the world.

Tom Donnelly is director of the Center for Defense Studies.