How to rebuild public support for military strength

WHEN the unified NATO command at SHAPE in Europe was established in early 1951 under Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the armed forces of the NATO countries had been permitted to deteriorate deplorably. Therefore, one of Eisenhower's most important initial tasks was to encourage the NATO nations to devote more resources to the improvement of their armed forces. To this end he invited both heads of government and parliamentary delegations to visit SHAPE frequently for briefings. While pointing out to them the essential steps that had to be taken so that NATO forces would constitute a credible military deterrent, he at the same time showed a remarkable understanding, not only of the problems that politicians face in connection with increased military spending, but also of the nonmilitary components that make up overall military and national strength. This made his advocacy of military improvement even more convincing. He used to say to visitors and staff: ``Gentlemen, in a democracy there are four vital and inseparable components in maintaining adequate military strength in peacetime.'' He would then describe them as follows:

The military component: The strength and effectiveness of the armed forces.

The economic component: The state of the economy and its future prospects, which influence, particularly in peacetime, the resources made available to the military.

The political component: The support a government receives from its national legislature for its military program. This depends largely on the final component.

The public component: The degree of understanding of and support by the people for the program itself and the way it is administered in relation to the demands of other important public programs against a limited amount of available resources.

When first elected, President Reagan gained understanding and support for his military buildup, emphasizing quite rightly that the greatest hope for preserving peace, for the present at least, is in a balance of power that would make the risk of global war too costly for a potential aggressor to chance. At the same time and separately, he promised a balanced budget by 1984. Now although the reasons for our military buildup remain the same, public support for it is rapidly waning.

Why? Because the Reagan program concentrated largely on only one of the four essential components -- the military. It failed to understand that initial public support for a program is not an endless commitment. It failed to supervise the program adequately, so that scandals and billions of dollars of waste resulted. It failed to deal with and indeed accentuated the budget deficit problem, for which the public is increasingly recognizing that it will have to pay. In a word it neglected the most important component of all in building and maintaining military strength in peacetime -- the public component, on which congressional support largely depends.

Is it too late to reverse the eroding public support? The answer is ``no'' if the administration addresses all the public's concerns connected with the military buildup. The announcement that a bipartisan presidential commission will be appointed to review Pentagon procurement policies is a welcome if long overdue step -- but only one step -- in the right direction. For it would be wishful thinking to believe that such a commission alone can deal with the multiple aspects of the military procurement problem if its examination is strictly limited to Pentagon procurement policies. The Joint Chiefs of Staff's flawed decisionmaking process for procurement should also be examined and corrected. The ``revolving door'' through which military officers working on procurement pass to become employees of the very contractors with whom they negotiated must be changed.

Finally, people must see that the administration is giving highest priority to the reduction and, one hopes, eventual elimination of the huge budget deficits, for which they recognize that they and their children will eventually have to pay long after those who are responsible for them have passed to an easy and pleasurable retirement.

Douglas MacArthur II, a retired career ambassador, is a lecturer and consultant on international affairs who served as political adviser to General Eisenhower at SHAPE.

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