Military immunity Pentagon budget escapes the knife -- but should it?


Nearly six years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, all talk of a peace dividend has evaporated. The very phrase seems quaint, an echo from another era. Whole domestic agencies, meanwhile, are targeted for extinction. Welfare and homeless programs, food and nutrition programs are under the budget knife. Medicare, long considered too politically risky to cut, has lost its immunity. Only the military budget remains secure from cuts, not only off the table, but slated for increases by both the Clinton administration and congressional Republicans.

Yet credible defense analysts across a wide ideological spectrum, including former Department of Defense officials, congressional budget analysts, think tank scholars, and at least one former head of the Central Intelligence Agency, say the Pentagon could be further cut, saving as much as $200 billion over the next five years. Why the immunity?

Two propositions are working in tandem to maintain the Pentagon's protected status, one erroneous, the other problematic.

The first is the belief that, since the end of the Cold War, defense decreases have cut the military "to the bone" - to its [See Pentagon, 6f] very marrow.

The second is a vague but widespread belief that, while the Cold War may be over, the world is still a dangerous place.

Both propositions, critics say, combine fact, mythology, ideology and theology and need to be thoroughly re-examined.

Dangers exaggerated

Analysts of diverse political stripes argue that the military has not been cut to the bone, that it has the fittest, best-trained force ever, and that the global dangers faced by the United States have been exaggerated.

America's behavior in a wide variety of international hot spots, from Bosnia to Somalia to Chechnya, suggests an era with few strategic threats to the United States, in which both the administration and Congress are reluctant to intervene in foreign conflicts, no matter what the Pentagon budget.

The most hawkish figures in both parties tend to be the most isolationist. An expanded military could find itself all dressed up with no place to go.

Has the military budget been cut since the end of the Cold War? Yes, definitely.

How much has it been cut? Estimates vary from 15 percent to 40 percent, depending on what years are compared and whether inflation is taken into account.

Secretary of Defense William J. Perry says the military budget has been cut by 40 percent, a figure widely cited by politicians who support current levels of spending or who are trying to save their states' military bases or defense contracts.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein used the 40 percent figure in arguing against the recommended closure of McClelland Air Force Base. Defense hawks in the House and Senate use it routinely.

Understanding the basis

This percentage sounds dramatic until its basis is understood.

Laurence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense, now affiliated with the Brookings Institution, says the 40 percent figure is technically correct only if you use the Reagan 1985 budget year as a base.

Between 1980 and 1985, President Reagan increased defense spending slightly more than 50 percent.

Mr. Korb offers a different comparison: "Let's take the military budget and put it in today's dollars. The Clinton plan is higher than it was in 1972."

In adjusted dollars, the United States is spending more on defense today than it did in 1955, or 1975, or most of the years of the Cold War, with the exception of the Vietnam and Reagan peaks.

The 1996 budget will be about $267 billion, or 85 percent of average Cold War budgets.

These comparisons, of course, leave out the defining event, the end of the Cold War, and the many geopolitical changes that have accompanied its ending.

Together, the United States and its allies account for 70 percent to 80 percent of the world's military spending. Although estimates vary considerably, most experts say the next highest spending countries -- France, Japan and Russia -- each spend somewhere between $30 billion and $50 billion annually.

Need for new thinking

Numbers like these lead such politically different figures as Bob Borosage, director of the Campaign for New Priorities and a former Jesse L. Jackson adviser, and William Colby, former CIA director under Richard M. Nixon, to argue that we have a desperate need for new thinking.

On the libertarian right, the Cato Institute questions the need for today's spending levels. In a July 1995 report, the institute urged military spending be immediately reduced to $205 billion, with a goal of reaching $140 billion (in today's dollars) by the turn of the century.

In releasing the report, its authors note: "One of the most tenacious myths, especially among conservatives, is that there has been a dangerously excessive reduction in U.S. military spending since the late 1980s. By almost any measurement, that is not the case."

The end of the Cold War has been sharply felt by individuals and communities whose livelihoods for decades have been shaped by defense jobs.

The absence of more robust national investment or conversion policies that could cushion the effects on local economies has silenced traditional advocates for limiting military spending.

Unions, such as the United Auto Workers or the International Association of Machinists, whose leaders for years tried to trim defense spending, are overwhelmed by layoffs and meager assistance programs and no longer able to carry on that fight.

Need for jobs

Many liberal and moderate politicians, who in the past have challenged military spending and might be expected to articulate some post-Cold War new thinking, have been silenced by the need for local jobs. Some have become advocates of a strong defense, as they try to save bases and vote for bombers and submarines that even the military says are superfluous.

Senator Feinstein stunned critics of the B-2 bomber when she led the fight to continue its production.

The B-2 is a bomber designed specifically to penetrate Soviet defense; since the Soviets no longer have anything we need to penetrate, the logic for continued production of B-2s has disappeared.

The cost per bomber is estimated to be between $1 billion and $1.5 billion.

Brooking's Mr. Korb minces no words: "We had killed the B-2 if she hadn't gotten involved. There was a handshake agreement -- everybody had signed up on it -- the Air Force, [Georgia Sen. Sam] Nunn -- no more than 20. Even the Air Force was behaving itself. Then, she gets up and opens up the damn thing, and all bets are off."

He adds, "And, you haven't heard Clinton get up and say we don't need B-2s."

Leading the fight against the B-2 were deficit hawk Republican John R. Kasich of Ohio, chairman of the House Budget Committee; and traditional dove, California Rep. Ronald V. Dellums, ranking member of the National Security Committee, formerly the House Armed Services Committee.

The vote for producing more bombers was close, 213-203, with 70 Democrats joining Republicans. Several weeks after this fight, the New York Times headlined a General Accounting Office draft report that found after 14 years, the B-2 has not passed most of its basic tests and cannot distinguish rain from other obstacles.

Not in my back yard

Many liberal politicians have long supported defense cuts, except in their back yards.

Senator Feinstein's more liberal predecessor, Alan Cranston, perennially supported production of the B-1 bomber. In recent years, base closures and downsizing have coincided with substantial job losses in nondefense areas, making the political choices more excruciating.

Many politicians say privately that they feel helpless and often unable to save private-sector jobs.

At least defense jobs, as public-sector jobs, are something they have a shot at influencing. Connecticut politicians freely acknowledge that support for the Seawolf, a submarine specifically designed to fight the Soviets, is a sine qua non for re-election.

In the recent round of base closures, one expected to hear the following rhetoric from Republican California Gov. Pete Wilson: "We are cutting in the muscle, we are cutting into the ability for the American military to be able to project force in a firm and convincing fashion that has special significance here in the Pacific region, which is particularly volatile."

One was surprised to hear both Senators Feinstein and Barbara Boxer using strong defense arguments. Closing McClelland Air Force Base, they argued, "poses risks to national security."

Even an angry President Clinton, in his speech publicly accepting the base-closing commission's recommendations, stuck to economic factors to explain his anger.

During the early primaries of the 1992 election, candidate Clinton advocated substantial cuts in the military budget, continuing but accelerating President George Bush's downward trend.

Mr. Clinton promised $100 billion worth of cuts over five years, $50 billion more than Mr. Bush.

President Clinton, however, after an inaugural budget that continued the Bush trajectory, has gradually been restoring previous decreases.

He had restored $36 billion prior to his proposed 1996 increases. In this year's budget resolution fight, Mr. Clinton proposed increases of $70 billion over the next six years.

Some House Republicans wanted to raise military spending by as much as $150 billion during the same period.

Reasons for change

What accounts for the shift in Mr. Clinton's stance?

In his first year, the president was roundly criticized by the defense establishment for plucking a defense figure from a hat rather than using one backed by a cogent set of strategic objectives.

President Clinton directed then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin to conduct a strategic planning process and a thorough review of defense strategy, force structure, modernization, infrastructure and foundations.

The Pentagon's effort resulted in the "Bottom Up Review" (BUR), released in September 1993. It has been characterized by Mr. Colby, the former intelligence chief, as bureaucratically self interested, by a Cato Institute publication as "fraudulent," and by Aspin intimates as an exemplar of strategic clarity, explicitly linking global security objectives with budget estimates.

The BUR's assumptions about the world's dangers now drive the Pentagon's request levels, their definitions of military

readiness and the claim that the current budget is underfunded.

The report says the Pentagon used models, war games, military analyses and discussions with political leaders to convert strategy into force requirements.

The key force requirement premise, and the central budget driver, is that the United States must be ready to fight, simultaneously, two regional wars, in geographically distinct areas. This is known in Pentagon-ese as the MRC, for Multiple Regional Contingencies.

Most scenarios involve one war in the Persian Gulf and one with North Korea. The MRC price tag has been estimated to be as high as $90 billion per year per war.

Skeptics in and out of Congress maintain that the military has essentially substituted rogues for Soviets.

Mr. Colby thinks the military budget can easily be cut 50 percent from Cold War levels without endangering national security. He also agrees that the Persian Gulf is our most pressing strategic problem.

"I think with these rogues, there's no use debating whether they could get a weapon or whether they have a weapon. Assume they have, now what do we do?"

Doing the right thing

He believes diplomacy, mediation and arms control are more likely to forestall danger, and that we're doing exactly the right thing with Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

During his first term, President Clinton has been constrained from further cuts by a variety of factors, some of which are unlikely to change during a second term.

First, he starts from a position of weakness, not only lacking the credibility of military service, but having avoided the draft and opposed the war in Vietnam. His position was further weakened, some say fatally, after he took on the issue of gays in the military.

A third factor is more ideological: Bill Clinton shares the conviction, along with other founding members of the Democratic Leadership Committee (DLC), that Democrats have lost previous national elections (McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis) because they were seen as soft on defense.

He is determined never to be vulnerable to these charges.

The only serious fights in Congress to cut defense spending have been led by Republicans over specific weapons: House Budget Chairman Kasich fought against the B-2 bomber, and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona found against the production of a third Seawolf submarine.

Like the B-2 stealth bomber, the Seawolf was designed to counter the Soviet fleet. Now, there are no enemy fleets to counter. Both fights were lost.

Mr. McCain, it should be noted, simultaneously advocated a $120 billion increase in defense spending generally.

In the House, Mr. Kasich also voted initially against the new Star Wars. But his position got him in trouble with House Speaker Newt Gingrich and contradicted the Contract with America, and he soon shifted his position, further dampening any thoughts of a bipartisan coalition between Republicans concerned about the deficit and Democrats concerned about the military budget.

Thus we have come full circle.

Until congressional Democrats have national policies that can ease the pain of defense workers and their communities, and confront directly the question of a post-Cold War economy, they have few alternatives but to walk in lock step with the president.

And, unless the president finds a compelling reason to re-examine the Pentagon's plans, and to make the case for a leaner military, his policies are not likely to provide those economic alternatives.

Karen M. Paget is co-author of "Running as a Woman: Gender and Power in American Politics," Free Press 1994. This is an abridged version of an article that appeared in The American Prospect.

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