Candidates wage war, but who'll talk defense? Candidates quiet amid uproar over military reform
MILITARY reform in the United States is like the weather: Everyone talks about it, big commissions present reports, but neither presidential candidate is going beyond vague forecasts for the future. Talk about military reform has risen from a low grumble to a dull roar in Washington since a procurement scandal hit the US Defense Department in June. The Justice Department charges that Pentagon officers took payoffs from military contractors in exchange for inside information on government contracts. The scandal has spawned a rash of congressional reform plans.Skip to next paragraph
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But where do the candidates stand on military reform?
No one knows for sure.
What do Vice-President George Bush and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis offer in defense policy as a whole?
That's another unknown.
The focus on defense in the election so far has been on hardware: the B-1 bomber, the MX missile, and the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), or ``star wars.'' The unglamorous nuts and bolts of readiness, supplies, spare parts, training, and contingency plans have been ignored.
This is because such issues have little impact on the US public, notes retired Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, a leading Republican spokesman on the military.
Instead, the campaign has heard accusations that equate military power with glamour weapons (such as the B-1) that Dukakis has opposed. On the right, Dukakis is accused of being a naive liberal who will give away the store. On the left, he faces Jesse Jacksonisms about how he should shift funds from the Pentagon to the inner city.
These extremes are irrelevant. They just won't happen - no matter who wins the election.
Why? Because massive military power - and spending - has been central to US security policy since the Korean war. The brief antimilitary backlash after Vietnam was an aberration.
Campaign oratory is obscuring the key question: What kind of policies accord with the dollar-short, manpower-lean conditions of the 1990s?
The answer that emerges from interviews with Democratic and Republican defense specialists and spokesmen is remarkably bipartisan and consensual.
Their conclusion is that there will be no drastic changes after the US inaugurates a new president. Instead, they expect to see some retrenchment and much continuity in overall policy.
No matter who wins, these defense specialists expect to see a de facto spending cap, far fewer big-ticket weapons systems, extreme caution about new Grenadas, and some attempt at military reform.
For constraint is the key word underlying the mainstream, centrist opinions expressed by all those interviewed: Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn, Robert Murray of the Dukakis campaign; and Denis Ross and General Scowcroft in the Bush camp.
They argue that a number of factors demand a wiser management of US military resources. These factors include America's economic difficulties, its declining pool of young military manpower, the spread of very destructive high-tech weapons into the third world, and public disenchantment with the Pentagon's spending habits. How does this translate into policy? Here's how Senator Nunn, Murray, Ross, and Scowcroft see it:
The President must take the lead by establishing clear, consistent priorities and sticking with them.
``We no longer can have everything we want,'' says General Scowcroft, ``as in the early '80s, when each service got a big slice of the pie.''
Fixing priorities would require a precise definition of national interests and strategy.
``Rather than the weapons you have shaping your policy,'' says Robert Murray, ``your policy should determine what weapons you need.''