Tuesday, June 10, 2008

EDITORIAL >>Defense boss cleans house

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has proved to be such a pleasing anomaly, a man bent on efficiency and accountability in an administration that has been a vast desert of incompetence. When it is sanctioned at the top, incompetence can be like a virus, spreading unbidden to places that are supposed to be hostile to political cronyism, which is the agent of incompetence.

Places like the armed services.

Since he replaced Donald Rumsfeld after the 2006 election, Gates has moved methodically to retire generals who had blundered so badly and repeatedly in Iraq. Last week, he unceremoniously dumped both the top civilian and officer in the Air Force, and this week he replaced them with what one hopes will be hard-eyed men who will restore the reliability and precision that Americans imagine their defense forces maintain.

Gates’ appointment of Gen. Norton Schwartz, who started his career at Little Rock Air Force Base, is welcome. The new chief of staff is a professional who will improve America’s ability to fight its enemies. He’s also a great guy. (See article on p. 1A.)

With what had to be sadness, Gates sacked Bush’s civilian secretary, Michael W. Wynne, and the chief of staff, Gen. T. Michael Moseley, because he couldn’t trust them to address the service’s manifold troubles, illustrated by two frightening nuclear episodes. Nuclear-armed cruise missiles were flown across the country by mistake, unbeknownst even to the pilots, and nuclear weapon fuses were shipped to Taiwan, which only wanted helicopter batteries. We berate other nations over nuclear proliferation and carelessness, and this is our own service.

Wynne’s failures should have been no surprise. As an executive of General Dynamics, a defense contractor, he had been a key Bush supporter. At the Air Force as an undersecretary, he was peripherally involved in the $23.5 billion plan to lease jets from the Boeing Co. to refuel tankers, a corrupt deal that resulted in prison terms for a former Boeing officer and Air Force official. The Defense Department inspector general faulted Wynne for not requiring the Air Force to follow proper procedures on the Boeing leases and then misleading the White House budget office about the matter. Still, Bush made him secretary of the Air Force, where he worked until Gates’ housecleaning.

Gates’ actions seemed to signal a new direction for the Air Force, which he thinks has been unable to adapt to the counterinsurgent nature of the wars in the Middle East and the need for better and more unmanned surveillance and for greater accountability. He also announced that he was stopping the Air Force’s planned reduction in personnel, which is supposed to be winnowed down to 300,000 next year.

It is too bad that President Bush could not have found Robert Gates earlier and cloned him for the rest of his unhappy government.