Former Clinton Navy secretary discusses post-Bush defense policy

The Pentagon needs "creative destruction" of some of its programs, says Richard Danzig.

After Richard Danzig served as a Pentagon civilian from 1977 to 1981, President Bill Clinton named him undersecretary of the Navy and then Navy secretary. Since 2001, he has acted as a consultant to the Defense Department on biological warfare. He is now one of Barack Obama's top advisers on defense policy.

NJ: If Senator Obama is elected, won't his promise to pull combat forces out of Iraq put tremendous pressure on him to cut defense, especially by doing away with supplemental spending bills?

Danzig: Withdrawal from Iraq generates some savings, but it also generates some costs, [for example] the refurbishment of equipment -- the so-called reset of the Army and Marine Corps. Supplementals have not only been used to deal with unexpected contingencies in the operating budget, like the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq; they've also been used to smuggle in items that should be part of the base budget. One of the problems any new administration is going to have to deal with is this bad budgeting technique.

NJ: How do you tame the defense budget, given the huge and increasing costs of long-deferred equipment modernization programs?

Danzig: There's a persistent problem with cost overruns. The recent performance of the Pentagon has been unusually bad. It's very difficult, but I think we can do a lot better than we've seen from this administration. This administration got off to a very bad start when it put $10 billion into missile defense and took it out of the normal acquisition process. It compounded that when it made it apparent that it didn't like bad news, and you had turnover in the heads of [the Pentagon Office of] Program Analysis and Evaluation. You have to create an atmosphere of honesty and candor.

NJ: But where do we cut spending?

Danzig: That's a very appropriate question. The Hindu religion has a goddess, Kali, who is the goddess of destruction, and we need a Kali: We need some creative destruction. We need the ability to recognize that some programs shouldn't be pursued and some pressing expenses need to be cut back. The answer to that isn't ideological; it's got to be based on a one-by-one look at the programs. I would say the Obama watchword is pragmatism.

NJ: There's no Obama equivalent to George W. Bush's Citadel speech in 1999, no grand vision of military transformation, no pledge to spend 4 percent of GDP on defense?

Danzig: I don't think there's an ideology that says, oh, we're going to lay this magic dust over the situation. In a sensible world, there's serious back-and-forth discussion with the military and civilian professionals in the Pentagon before we arrive at conclusions. It doesn't admit of some formula. I'm not a fan of 4 percent of GDP or some arbitrary number. The budget and the program have to be unpacked, and I think you have to do that piece by piece.

NJ: Obama does endorse the addition of 100,000 personnel to the Army and Marine Corps; isn't that an expensive proposition?

Danzig: The military is overstretched at the moment, it needs more resources, and those resources begin with people. Financially, that can be accomplished. For me, the crucial question is in fact quality. It has to be done in a way that's consistent with our historical standards for initial entry, and historically that standard has focused on, among other things, a 90 percent high school graduation rate.

NJ: Many analysts have said that President Bush represents a deviation from a bipartisan mainstream, and that McCain and Obama are much closer to each other than either is to Bush. Is that true?

Danzig: The Bush second term is noticeably different from the Bush first term, and [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates is noticeably different from [Donald] Rumsfeld. So even the Bush administration, to some extent, is at odds with the Bush administration.

One of the characteristics of the Bush administration has been this division of the world into we and they, and the strong view that you're with us or against us. That same intense, even angry, division of the world characterizes Senator McCain's approach. You see that in McCain's view that we ought not to be talking to Iran. He says he'd be multilateral, and then he'd throw Russia out of the G-8.

Another characteristic of this administration has been unwillingness to listen, and then a kind of angry rejection of anyone who offers a different view. I see in Senator McCain a similar tendency to arrive at a conclusion and then angrily reject the views of others that might contradict that conclusion. I don't think it's a good characteristic in a president.