Aspin Reinvents National Defense

It has been widely understood that the Clinton administration planned to pay for new social programs mainly by cuts in defense spending. It is, therefore, no surprise that the budget proposed by Secretary of Defense Les Aspin features deep cuts and proposes a level of spending that is more than $128 billion below the levels proposed by the Bush administration.

What was not understood was that the Clinton/Aspin budget would propose to use those reduced dollars to pay for new activities not previously funded by the Department of Defense.


But with the release of the "bottom-up review" and the defense budget, it became clear that while Vice President Gore was reinventing government, Secretary Aspin was reconceptualizing national defense. Mr. Aspin's program not only proposes non-traditional uses of the armed forces, it proposes non-traditional uses of the defense budget to finance "needs" never before judged to be defense needs and functions never previously judged to be the business of the Defense Department. This means that the actual cuts in funding for the military are deeper than they seem.

The point of departure for the new thinking, Mr. Aspin tells us, was the question, "What should our defense establishment be geared against now?" The Cold War is over. The Soviet Union no longer exists. No major power with the capacity to damage the U.S. shows signs of hostility. Though they might simply have declared a peace dividend, the "bottom-up review" identified "four new dangers" against which we should defend: major regional conflicts, proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, dangers to democracy in the former Soviet Empire, and the threat to U.S. economic strength.


Note that none of these four "dangers" is a danger to American lives, territorial integrity or treaty allies. Only one -- a major regional conflict -- might, like Desert Storm, require a military response.

It seems extremely unlikely that the Clinton administration would use force to prevent the development of nuclear weapons by North Korea, Iran, Libya or any of the violent governments now seeking them. The other three "dangers" have been the responsibility of government sectors other than the Defense Department.

To encourage and protect democratic reform in the former Soviet Empire, for instance, previous administrations have relied on the State Department and Agency for International Development.

To deter proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the United States has relied mainly on the International Atomic Energy Agency. To administer export controls, it has relied on the Commerce Department. The Defense Department only has had the responsibility -- under the Nunn-Lugar act -- to try to prevent nuclear proliferation from the former Soviet Union.

To protect its economic strength, Americans have relied on business and industry -- the private sector. When the U.S. government has become involved, it has acted through the departments of Commerce, Agriculture and Treasury, and the U.S. Trade Representative -- not the Defense Department.

Until now the Department of Defense budget has been mainly, if not exclusively, dedicated to funding military activities because the job of the department has been to develop weapons, train forces and fight wars. That responsibility has not been diluted by some other "need," such as promoting U.S. economic competitiveness.

Now it appears the Clinton administration seeks to pursue an industrial policy through Defense Department spending: to promote "dual-use" technologies, that have both commercial and military applications, to strengthen U.S. high-tech capacities and advantages, and to assist in the "conversion" of defense personnel and capacities to civilian uses.

The proposed budget also gives the Defense Department the primary responsibility for "peacekeeping" -- the only growth industry in the military field -- which heretofore has been the responsibility of the State Department.


These new functions could be explained simply as a bureaucratic struggle for turf -- in which a department whose functions have diminished looks for new ones. But they also suggest a new concept of defense based on the assumption that what's good for anyone somehow "defends" the United States. It may be, moreover, that the Clinton/Aspin team is trying to use military resources to promote social and economic goals they might otherwise have trouble funding.

My concern about this defense budget is less with the goals it seeks to promote than with the distortion their inclusion in the defense budget introduces into the consideration of defense.

The purpose of military forces is to deter and defeat enemies. Forces so trained can perform other useful functions and have done so throughout our history. They have helped in emergencies at home and in organizing elections abroad. Such forces might also, under some circumstances, be used for peacekeeping, providing that, as Harvard specialist Samuel Huntington has observed, such service is compatible with the basic mission of the American armed forces, which is and must continue to be "to deter, and to defeat the enemies of the United States."

Other functions performed by the military, according to Mr. Huntington, should be "spill-over functions which the military is capable of providing, because they have been well organized, trained, and equipped to perform their military functions of lTC defending their country."

I too believe that someone somewhere in the U.S. government should encourage democracy, promote respect for human rights and strengthen American competitiveness. But the "bottom-up review" and the proposed defense budget suggest to me that the Clinton/Aspin team are confusing these worthy goals with the mission of the U.S. armed forces.

Jeane Kirkpatrick is a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute.