Can We Get Without the Pentagon's Public-Works Program?


Washington. -- One notable player was missing from the ranks of the big guns that lined up to fire rhetorical salvos against President Clinton's economic plan last week: the Pentagon. And no wonder: Mr. Clinton has essentially given the military a pass from the economic call to arms and sacrifice.

The Clinton plan would cut approximately $8 billion from the Bush military budget next year. That may sound like a lot, but it amounts to a reduction of less than 4 percent. In comparable dollars, President Clinton will spend more on the post-Cold War military, at a time when the Soviet Union literally doesn't exist, than Richard Nixon thought necessary after Vietnam, when the Russian bear was said to be loose in the woods.

It is an odd decision. While domestic programs were being slashed in the 1980s, the military was luxuriating in the largest peacetime buildup in recorded history. This year, the United States will spend $286 billion on national defense, about $15 billion more than the peacetime Cold War average.

There is no security rationale for this spending. As Gen. Colin Powell, commander of the Joint Chiefs, has said: The Red Army is gone. Russian weakness is more of a threat than its strength, as the United States labors to ensure that the Russians retain control of their nuclear weapons.

The world is indeed a dangerous place, as the president said. And yet former CIA Director Robert Gates concluded not long ago that "We do not expect direct threats to the United States to arise within the next decade."

Certainly the United States should lead military peacekeeping vTC and humanitarian efforts, but spending more than Cold War budgets to do so is simply foolish at a time when both Democratic and Republican security analysts claim we could retain the most powerful military in the world and still save $200 billion or more over the next five years.

So why do we do it? Washington's little open secret is that the military budget has become the nation's largest public-works program, rivaling by far the president's modest jobs programs. As Defense Secretary Les Aspin has noted, the congressional debate over military spending no longer divides liberal from conservative, nor Democrat from Republican, but it does divide those who have large military contracts in their districts from those who do not.

Mr. Aspin's predecessor, Richard Cheney, revealed all with a slip of the tongue while defending the B-2 bomber, arguing that its great advantage was that it carries a large payroll . . . er, payload.

The military has many advantages as a public-works program. It employs untrained high school graduates as well as the most sophisticated scientists and engineers. It is an equal-opportunity employer. Its purchases provide transfusions for our bloodied manufacturing sector. Its production workers tend to be high-skilled, high-wage and unionized. For a president dedicated increasing just those kind of jobs, cutting them from the military isn't very appealing.

Military spending is the least efficient form of public works. We are spending scarce resources building weapons we don't need while failing to make investments we can't do without. We make the smartest missiles in the world, but when Amtrak wanted to purchase a fast train, it turned to Sweden.

Moreover, the Congressional Research Service concluded that investing savings from the military at home will produce significantly more jobs and more growth than continuing to waste the money on guns.

The economic transition to a genuine peacetime economy can be managed, given the public commitment. Given the size of our economy, the task is much easier than that faced at the end of the wars in Korea and Vietnam.

But the politics are much more difficult. The Pentagon employs the nation's largest public-relations apparatus. It can rally legions of dedicated veterans, respected authority figures, politically potent contractors and dependent workers to battle on its behalf. It is the largest, most potent, most entrenched special interest in the nation.

If the president's proposed reductions survive sniping by the military and its allies, he will have breached the military's line, but not captured much terrain.

If the public and Congress don't provide reinforcement, the old Soviet Union may not be the only casualty of excessive Cold War military spending.

Robert Borosage is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and director of the Campaign for New Priorities.

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