The Red Queen Designs a Defense Budget


So far neither President Clinton nor Defense Secretary Les Aspin has told us how the proposed defense budget will buy the security this country needs. So far they have told us only that they plan to cut twice as much from the defense budget as candidate Clinton said he would and that they rely on defense cuts to pay for 85 percent of the administration's projected deficit reductions.

Specific decisions about what is to be cut will come after their "bottom-up" comprehensive review of defense needs. For now, LTC the dollar amount is simply postulated.

Normally a defense budget starts at the other end -- with an assessment of dangers, a conception of what is needed to deal with them and a strategy that links dangers to weapons and money. But like the mad queen in "Alice in Wonderland," the Clinton team has adopted a "sentence first, evidence later" approach to the defense budget.

"We have been dealing with numbers grabbed out of the air, no one knows where all these cuts are going to come from," Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., told CNN. It appears, says Rep. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., that they are "starting with a number and fitting a strategy to that. That's the wrong way to go about it."

Mr. Aspin's "explanations" in his Senate testimony indicated so little about how the administration's proposals relate to the dan gers in the world, they seem to confirm the growing impression that the administration started from a decision about how much it wanted to cut from the defense budget with no serious thought about how much can be cut without damage to U.S. security or the economy.

The secretary told the House Armed Services Committee last Tuesday that the defense budget is based on a new philosophy. We confront four dangers in the post-Cold War world, he said: "regional threats to U.S. interests," "proliferation of weapons of mass destruction," the failure of democratic reforms and a "poor economic performance at home."

But he neither explains the dangers nor relates them to defense requirements. Mr. Aspin told the House Armed Services Committee, "Threats to stability in key regions throughout the world have become America's principal military concern and major determinant of our defense-budget priorities." As examples he cites "regional aggressors like Iraq," civil wars and massive suffering, as in the former Yugoslavia, "the breakdown of civil and economic order, as in Somalia."

The defense secretary is a very smart, sophisticated man who perhaps lumped the four "dangers" together because he did not have an opportunity to think through what they have and do not have in common. Horrible as they are, ethnic strife in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo and social breakdown in Somalia are not major military threats to the United States. They are not the kind of "principal military concern" that can reasonably determine major aspects of defense planning -- though we can, and I think should, help deal with these problems.

Many aspects of the four "dangers" are not military at all and cannot be dealt with by military means. Peacekeeping and humanitarian relief are worthy activities, but not normally considered part of the nation's defense. They cost money, but the money spent usually does not contribute to the national security. It is simply not true that any problem anywhere is a threat to American security.

Somewhat more effort was made to explain how the Clinton administration proposes to deal with the very real threat posed by the growing capacity of countries like North Korea, Iraq and Iran to make and deliver nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. The budget recognizes the threat such weapons constitute to soldiers on battlefields and to the United States itself. But the administration's budget will provide neither an adequate defense against SCUD-type missiles nor a capacity to defend the United States itself from attack.

And that is not all. Because the Clinton administration defines economic strength as a dimension of national security to which the Pentagon should contribute, the administration counts reductions in forces, base closings and elimination of weapons as "contributions" to security.

It also counts as "defense" $700 million to help people and communities adapt to the elimination of their jobs, and $1 billion for the development of "dual-use technologies" to facilitate the commercial use of defense research and development. The budget does not take into account the adverse effect deep cuts in military forces and weapons will have on the economy. It will surely throw more highly qualified people out of work than President Clinton's proposed stimulus package can possibly re-employ.

Mr. Clinton has offered a budget for peace, but the world is unstable and unpredictable. The massive threats of the Cold War have waned, but the missiles are still aimed at us. And the democratic government of Russia is chronically threatened.

I do not believe the defense budget is sacrosanct, or that it should be maintained at previous levels. But President Clinton's budget cuts too deeply, too quickly to be prudent, and it has been given too little thought.

Comparing the careful investigation and consultation and thought that have gone into the approach to health-care policy and the alternating rush to judgment and neglect of defense policies makes clear that the president is much more concerned with health care than with national security.

That's too bad -- both are vital interests.

Jeane Kirkpatrick writes a syndicated column.

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