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Cold war-style spending without the Cold War

NOW THAT the country's given Bill Clinton a pass on his dating habits, we can begin paying attention again to some legitimate reasons to be infuriated by this president of ours, starting with his love-hate relationship with the military while undernourished communities starve for a little affection.

The same guy who not only dodged the draft during Vietnam but declared he "loathed" the military now wants to increase military spending by $110 billion, building bombs and missiles and warplanes that even the voracious Pentagon says we don't need.

Is this supposed to be a sign of Bill's midlife maturity, his understanding that defense contracts help fuel the great American economy, and never mind what all those bombs do to eyeballs and limbs when they go off?

For many of us, Clinton's unforgivable act on the draft wasn't dodging it but equivocating about it 25 years later instead of declaring, "I avoided Vietnam as an act of conscience, just as millions of others did who found it a morally offensive war."

But he didn't, which is why the new round of proposed spending becomes additionally maddening when it comes from him. What's the deal? Nobody's told Clinton about the Russkies throwing in the towel? In his efforts to rent as many friends as possible during the recent Monica Lewinsky troubles, Clinton seemed to offer money to all the old familiar faces, including those not even asking for it.

But because the United States spends six times as much on defense as our nearest rival, and almost as much on national security as the rest of the world combined, it's worth asking: What is it we're defending with all this proposed new spending? If we continue to let U.S. cities and their surrounding, aging suburbs decay, then what we'll have left are the best-defended slums in history.

And you know what else? This argument's getting a little old. When the Berlin Wall fell a decade ago, and the Commies emerged from their bunkers waving white flags, everybody talked about the great peace dividend to come.

Remember that phrase? Maybe not, because it went away in a hurry. But it referred to all the money previously sucked into the Pentagon that could now be freed for troubled American communities.

So what's happened since? In places like Baltimore County, we have communities beginning to resemble the Baltimore City of 40 years ago, with aging schools and streets, deteriorating neighborhoods, increasing crime and drug traffic - and county officials saying there isn't enough money around to fix it.

In places like Catonsville and Cockeysville, the county's feeling its age - literally. Though the county's number of senior citizens and schoolkids is roughly equal, within 20 years seniors are expected to outnumber children 2-1. The graying of such communities is under way (more than 140,000 people over age 60 live in Baltimore County) - and those folks need expensive services they never needed before.

Meanwhile, families that once fled the city for places such as Towson and Pikesville now hopscotch beyond, to Harford and Carroll counties, which try to cope with the pressures of unanticipated new populations and the problems they bring. What kind of problems? How about: Use of heroin rose 146 percent in Carroll and 121 percent in Harford from 1994 to 1997.

Meanwhile, at the State House, we've had talk of raising the gasoline tax to pay for much-needed new roads. Why do we have to raise another tax, in a time of fat state bank accounts? Why can't more of the money we send to Washington to build bombers instead stay here to build roads and bridges?

And then, of course, there's the city. Six years ago, when Bill Clinton was trying to survive the Democratic primaries and the first national whisperings about his extracurrricular love life, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said he was backing Clinton because "he's the only one out there who understands cities."

Clinton's sent pretty good money here - but if he saw Sunday's Sun, he knows it's a spit in the ocean. In two dispiriting pieces, we saw a city in free fall: Jim Haner's chilling front-page story of narcotics dealers buying up chunks of city properties, sending entire neighborhoods deeper into ruin; and a remarkable two-page editorial on the city's homicides and the wreckage of its criminal justice system, which began with these words:

"The contrast is astonishing. Last year, Boston (population 558,000) recorded 35 homicides; Baltimore (population 675,000) had 314. Even New York, with 10 times more people, had just 629 homicides."

And, as ever, the city's too broke to deal with most of its problems in any significant way. Too broke, and too intellectually confused, and too exhausted by decades of Cold War spending that continues even without the Cold War.

And a so-called peace dividend slips away with a president who gets a pass on his dating habits but not on his now-found interest in making the Pentagon happy.

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