Winslow Wheeler's career as a military reformist author and commentator, along with his thoughts for the future of defense reform, were the subject of Philip Gold's column in Washington Law and Politics.
"In Re: The Crusader" was first published by Washington Law & Politics and is reproduced below.
"In Re: The Crusader"
By Philip Gold
Were Washington, D.C., a walled city (which in many ways it is), there would be a sign above the gate warning newcomers: “YOU WILL RUN OUT OF PEARLS LONG BEFORE WE RUN OUT OF SWINE.”
And perhaps nowhere are the swine more swinish than in the military-industrial-Congressional empire, or MICE. Still, this column is not about swinish mice or mousy swine, numerous though they be. It’s about a man who, since 1971, has been tossing pearls.
And who remains optimistic.
Winslow Wheeler arrived on Capitol Hill in 1971. He left in 2002 after splitting three decades between the Government Accountability Office (formerly General Accounting Office) and the Senate: defense analyst at the GAO; in the Senate, legislative assistant to four senators, Republican and Democrat, and a final stint as a Republican staffer on the Senate Budget Committee. In the 1980s, he became active in the bipartisan, bicameral Congressional Military Reform Caucus; arguably, he knows as much about the defense budget as anyone who has worked in the field and kept his or her sanity. He has also been, for many years, a public crusader against pork-and against those who pose as guardians of the trough but in reality abide by that old Congressional maxim “To get along, go along.”
In the late 1990s, Wheeler began writing under the not-very-secure pseudonym “Spartacus.” His work circulated privately and on the Internet. Spartacus gained influence and, inevitably, made enemies. In 2002, he wrote “Mr. Smith Is Dead: No One Stands in the Way as Congress Lards Post-September 11 Defense Bills with Pork.” The piece named names and got into specifics. Self-styled “pork buster” John McCain decided to get Wheeler fired. Wheeler resigned and went to work at the Center for Defense Information, a left-of-center D.C. think tank founded by a repentant admiral that ever since has played host to disgruntled retired senior officers and some of the better analysts around. In 2004, Wheeler reprised “Mr. Smith” with a devastating Washington Post commentary, “Don’t Mind If I Do,” that re-skewered McCain. The article was still kicking around during the 2008 campaign.
Wheeler subsequently wrote two books, The Wastrels of Defense: How Congress Sabotages U.S. Security and Military Reform: A Reference Handbook, and edited a 2008 anthology, America’s Defense Meltdown: Petagon Reform for President Obama and the New Congress. Of late, he and fellow defense reformer Pierre Sprey have been taking on the F-35 Lightning II fighter, just one of many horrifically over-budget, endlessly behind-schedule and militarily questionable items in the Pentagon’s current inventory of maybe-someday and never-enough.
I recently had occasion to review Wheeler’s work for my next book, Closing Ranks: The Citizen’s Guide to a New Defense (Praeger, December 2009) and decided to chat him up. I expected an embittered man, as many of the 1970s and ’80s old defense reformers now are, some ostentatiously so. I found instead a citizen not averse to speaking in clear English but also surprisingly upbeat.
On interview day (May 12), Wheeler offered an unexceptional analysis of President Obama’s defense stance: “He’s very concerned [that] he presents a posture as a moderate and [does] not get savaged by the Republicans as an anti-defense Democrat.” He can neither take on the MICE full-frontally nor fold two dismal wars.
Wheeler’s assessment of Defense Secretary Robert Gates is more complex: “He’s a mixed bag. He has done nothing to change the nature of the Pentagon beast but has brought some discipline to OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense]. He’s clearly in charge.” As proof, he cites Gates’ embargo on the FY 2010 defense budget until it was officially released and his refusal to let the services send their “wish lists” (items not in the budget request) to Congress without prior approval. Gates’ enforcement technique: Cross me and get fired.
But it’s a long legislative season, and, as the poet once wrote, “There’s many a slip ’twixt the zipper and the zip.” Wheeler does not discount the possibility that Congress will once again lard up the Pentagon’s allowance, but suggests that, if it gets out of hand, Gates could recommend a presidential veto. “Gates and Obama,” he concludes, “could shape their own battlefield if they have the guts to do it.”
Yet, unlike many defense analysts (myself included), Wheeler does not see much need for fundamental legislative change. Should we revisit the National Security Act of 1947 and its multitudinous amendments? “No,” he answers. “The people who would do it are buffoons.” He prefers three major changes within the present system:
• Bring down total defense spending to reflect real-world considerations, not the standard troika of plentiful pork, preposterous perils and purposeful procrastination.
• Use the pressure of less money to force the system to start making lots of previously avoidable hard choices.
• Provide an honest analytic and financial-management system that generates valid information, not the self-serving fantasies now used in the Department of Defense and Congress.
All this, he concludes, depends on having enough people with sufficient intelligence and integrity. He says, “Today’s Pentagon people are hopeless. We have to focus on human behavior, not cosmetic changes. Nothing in current law, regulation or structure requires people to make crooked or stupid decisions.”
True. But where are all these good people to be found? And how do you get the American people to take enough of an interest to force their legislators to get serious? There is virtually no organized constituency for defense reform outside certain policy and media circles; citizen hissy-fitting doth not a movement make. Those opposed to change are well organized, well funded and very, very intense. And the next election-there’s always a next election-is coming up.
Wheeler disagrees, and remains hopeful. “This is a new historical moment,” he says. “The experience of the 1980s shows that there is a huge mass constituency for reform, and when the politicians and the Pentagon feel the pressure, they’ll press for better angels. We will know that time is upon us when we see people leveraging decisions with information, not political dogma.”
Perhaps. From the vantage point of 2009, however, it is difficult to see the 1980s as enjoying any mass movement, as opposed to lots of muckraking publicity (not all of it accurate) and elite interest, or what fundamental and enduring changes that decade produced. Still, as the lottery people love to remind us, you can’t win if you don’t play. Citizens who wish to understand defense issues-and there is no defense issue whose contours the American people cannot understand-would do well to pay heed to what Winslow Wheeler and those like him are trying to tell us.