Indefensible

This fall, Bill Clinton threatened to veto tax cuts, an abortion ban, environmental riders, cuts in foreign aid, education funding directed at the states rather than directly at schools, and reductions in a community policing measure. But when the $288.8 billion defense appropriations bill—representing the largest increase in military spending since the first Reagan budget in 1981—came across his desk, Clinton signed it without a whisper of criticism. According to Chris Hellman of the Center for Defense Information, if Congress continues to fund the programs included in this budget, the United States will be spending more on the military by 2005 than it spent in an average year during the Cold War. And it will be doing so without any compelling public justification.

Past increases in 1950, 1961, and 1981 were justified by claims of an increased Soviet threat, but the United States does not face a comparable adversary today. Even before the current budget increase, the American military spent 18 times as much as the combined budget of the seven "rogue" nations of Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria, and eight times more than China. Lieutenant General Patrick Hughes, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told a Senate hearing in 1997, "From a national security standpoint, the threats facing the United States have diminished in order of magnitude, and we are unlikely to face a global military challenger on the scale of the former Soviet Union for at least the next two decades. The world is spending in real terms some 30 percent to 40 percent less on defense than it did during the height of the Cold War, the 'rogue' states are relatively isolated, and at least one—North Korea—is probably terminal."

The United States does have new military responsibilities in the post-Cold War world—using peace-keeping forces to prevent the re-emergence of regional imperialism or of the kind of virulent ethnic nationalism that contributed to the two world wars. But spending on these endeavors was not a factor in the massive budget increase. The American presence in Bosnia was allocated $1.8 billion, and spending on Kosovo was not included in the budget, but in a separate, supplementary request.

What triggered the increase? A two-year campaign by the nation's military and the Republican leadership in Congress. The first group, the Pentagon's policy makers, have not made the transition out of the Cold War. They remain wedded to weaponry devised to combat the Soviet threat and to troop levels designed to stem multiple communist insurgencies. The second group, the Republican congressional leadership, is driven by a "Fortress America" outlook and by a commitment to the defense contractors that bring jobs to their states and districts. By turning a genuine problem of military readiness into a bogus crisis, these two groups took advantage of an indifferent public and of a president weakened by scandal to win widespread support in both parties for an increase in the defense budget. The House passed the defense budget by 372 to 55, the Senate by 87 to 11.

During the Clinton years, the Pentagon has made two major efforts to redefine military strategy—Les Aspin's Bottom-up Review in 1993 and the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) in 1997. The QDR, which merely updated the previous exercise, called on the United States to "prepare" for new kinds of warfare through modernization, "respond" to existing threats, and "shape" the international environment through overseas deployments. Its central contention was that the United States had to be equipped to fight major wars in "two distant theaters in overlapping time frames." Such wars, it contended, could break out simultaneously in Southwest Asia (Iraq or Iran) and in East Asia (the Korean peninsula).

The QDR, like its predecessor, claimed to look toward the future but was rooted firmly in the past. It presumed a recurrence of the Korean War or Operation Desert Storm, and then added the further improbability that the two wars would occur simultaneously. It reached its estimate of weapons and personnel by doubling the forces needed for Operation Desert Storm. The QDR, in short, was a rationale for inertia—for maintaining existing expenditures. The National Defense Panel, composed of outside experts appointed by the White House to assess the QDR, reached exactly this conclusion. The two-war scenario, the 10-member panel wrote, "may have become a force-protection mechanism—a means of justifying the current force structure."

The QDR's call for modernization was similarly backward-looking. While touting a "revolution in military affairs," it promoted weapons like the F-22 and F/A-18E/F, fighter planes that had been designed in the 1980s to meet the Soviet threat. These super-weapons designed to match what would have been the next generation and a half of Soviet fighters, would have little utility against a "rogue" state like Iraq or in peacekeeping operations in the Balkans, and their production would divert the United States from devising new kinds of weapons that might be more appropriate for the second decade of the twenty-first century. "Our modernization effort," Andrew Krepin ivich of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments warned, "will produce a force that is likely to depreciate rapidly over the next two decades, while its principle value will be realized during a period of relatively low risk to national security."

Constrained by deficits and congressional budget limits, the QDR did not call for increases in defense spending, but projected "stable annual defense budgets of roughly $250 billion in constant FY 1997 dollars." In early 1998, as the prospect of budget surpluses began to loom, the Pentagon began pressing for increased funding. Its pretext was a crisis in readiness, which General Harry H. Shelton, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, urged unit commanders to publicize. Indeed, there were parts shortages and recruiting problems—the result of low civilian unemployment and rising wages—but the Pentagon used these to justify disproportionate increases in overall spending.

That March, Admiral Harold Gehman, head of the Norfolk-based U.S. Atlantic Command, told the House Armed Services Committee, ''The depth of our readiness is not as much as we thought it was." All across his command, Gehman said, there are "troops (with) suitcases full of personal stories about how they can't get the parts they need." In September, the Joint Chiefs repeated this warning before the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Without relief," Shelton said, "we will see a continuation of the downward trends in readiness, from decreased mission-capable rates, depot maintenance backlogs, and shortfalls in critical skills." In September, Secretary of Defense William Cohen and the Joint Chiefs met privately with Clinton to urge him to agree to increase spending.

Meanwhile, the Senate and House Republican leadership began a campaign of their own. Most of the new Republican leaders like Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott embrace the older Fortress America outlook of the Robert Taft Republicans. They see military spending as a means to eliminate American dependence on foreign alliances. They enthusiastically back anti-missile defense programs but oppose intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo and the funding of the United Nations. Many of the new leaders like Lott and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich also come from areas of the South that were very dependent on defense spending. This year's defense bill included, for instance, $8 billion in funds for Lott's Mississippi, including $375 million for a helicopter carrier that had not even been included in the Pentagon's original budget.

While these Republicans might disagree with Democrats and some of their own party members on intervention in Kosovo or UN funding, they made common cause on defense jobs. This year's budget, for instance, included F-15 fighters that the Pentagon had not requested but that brought jobs to Senator Christopher Bond's state (Missouri) and Minority Leader Repre sentative Richard Gephardt's district in St. Louis. One of the most powerful congressional caucuses is the 70-member bipartisan Depot Caucus, chaired by two neo-isolationists, Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe and Utah Congressman James Hansen. The caucus succeeded in blocking further base closings—even though the Pentagon recommended them.

The Republicans joined the generals and admirals in warning of the readiness crisis. In the first nine months of 1998, the House Armed Services Committee held 13 different hearings on readiness. In July, Lott sent a "private" letter to Clinton, which was leaked to The Washington Times, expressing his concern about the "growing inability of our country to man the uniformed services." In August, Lott urged his committee chairs to hold hearings, warning that "our military has begun a downward spiral." Additionally, the Republicans talked up the military threat posed by China and North Korea. In 1998 it was the specter of Chinese spy satellites; this year it was the Cox Commission's claim of the Chinese theft of nuclear secrets.

The efforts of the Republicans and the Pentagon were supplemented by massive advertising of defense contractors and by editorials, op-ed pieces, and television news specials. Many of the most spectacular claims appeared in The Washington Times and other conservative publications, but ABC did a show on the readiness crisis, and The Washington Post ran a long front-page account bemoaning "retreads on . . . armored vehicles . . . spare-parts shortages and maintenance backlogs . . . pilots . . . bailing out of military service in droves [and] mounting evidence of erosion in America's combat strength and troop morale." In October 1998, a year before the current budget passed, Clinton threw in the towel and agreed to a proposal for $8.3 billion in emergency defense funding. In February he submitted a budget that included a $13-billion increase in spending from the last budget. "America's defenders," Clinton said in his State of the Union address, "always come through for America—we must come through for them." The battle was over.

That winter, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jay L. Johnson told the House Armed Services Committee that if he were to get "one more dollar" to spend, "all things being equal, I'd put it in the pocket of my sailors," but the expenditures passed by Congress and signed by the White House did not reflect this emphasis on readiness. Of the $8.3-billion emergency appropriation, only $1.1 billion was directed at personnel and operation and main ten ance. Similarly, in the final budget adopted this October, spending on procurement—including weapons like the F-22—went up 8.16 percent, while spending on personnel went up 4.2 percent, and spending on operations and main tenance actually fell 6 percent. Spending on research and development—the center of any modernization strategy—went up only 2.7 percent. The final budget represented a triumph of the Pentagon's implausible two-war strategy, the Repub licans' Fortress America isolationism, and Con gress and the defense contractors' quest for expensive arms programs.

There was little opposition to the increased military budget. In March 1999, Representative Barney Frank got only 22 House members and five Senators to sign a letter saying, "We believe that the significant increases proposed in military spending go far beyond what is needed for our national security," and even their small voice was muffled by the war in Kosovo. (Even though spending on the war did not figure in the budget, and even though American forces demonstrated their clear superiority, the Pentagon and the Republicans used the war to reinforce their claims of a readiness crisis.) The old peace lobby in Washington is now reduced to a handful of groups, led by the Council for a Livable World. "We are much more on the defensive. There are fewer of us, and we are doing more poorly," lamented John Isaacs, the council's executive director. The peace lobby largely confined itself to fighting particular weapons systems like the F-22 and ballistic missile defenses rather than questioning the underlying purpose and scope of the military budget.

Yet what Washington and the nation desperately need is a renewed debate on the military budget—and a genuine bottom-up review of Pentagon spending. It could begin with the Pentagon's two-war strategy. Former Reagan administration defense official Lawrence Korb, now with the Council on Foreign Relations, has devised an alternative budget that sets troop strength at levels sufficient to fight one major theater war while "conducting a Bosnia-type peacekeeping operation and maintaining a presence in Europe, the Gulf, and Asia." Korb's total budget would be $225 billion, a 16-percent reduction in spending and enough money to settle the debate between presidential candidates Bill Bradley and Al Gore about whether the nation can afford to guarantee universal access to health care.

The Pentagon's obsession with fighting old wars and the Republicans' fortress mentality has also undermined the quest for a new post-Cold War foreign policy. The Republicans' refusal to ratify the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was entirely consistent with their campaign to increase spending on strategic weaponry and missile defenses. They envision a heavily armed America holding a hostile world at bay. It's a conception appropriate to an insignificant island nation, not to a country with major responsibility for the world's peace and prosperity. And it runs directly counter to what should be the main objective of our foreign and military policy: constructing a post- imperial world order, based on multilateral diplomacy and economic interdependence, in which major military conflicts between states become increasingly rare.

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