THE great American defense debate is about to resume. Two years ago, in the euphoria after the collapse of Soviet and Eastern European communism, the first questioning of basic assumptions about national security in a post-cold-war era began to emerge from think tanks, editorial pages, and even a few congressional hearings.
The phrase "peace dividend" rapidly gained currency, referring to a reward for two generations of huge investment in the world's most awesome arsenal. Many argued it was time to cash it in and reinvest the proceeds in US industrial and social infrastructure.
But before the debate ripened, it was aborted by the Gulf crisis. The public imagination was suddenly seized by the specter of Saddam Hussein and the spectacle of chimney-sniffing missiles.
Public attention was so distracted that some observers speculate the White House and its allies in Congress and industry may have engineered, or at least exaggerated, the crisis.
The Gulf war has now faded from the public mind, supplanted by longer unemployment lines. Our cold-war and Gulf-war victories are coming to feel more problematic than triumphant.
Budgets are being cut in every sector - public, corporate, personal. Leanness, if not meanness, is the order of the day. Even conservative Republicans call for cuts in the military budget.
A survey of proposals currently circulating in Congress reveals a range of possible reductions, though they are difficult to compare because they are stated in different formulas. Conservative Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas calls for a 5 percent cut for the coming year; Sen. William Roth (R) of Delaware a $130 billion cut in five years. Senate majority leader George Mitchell calls for a $100 billion cut in five years, and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts $210 billion in seven.
Alone among them, Rep. Ron Dellums (D) of California, chair of a House subcommittee on military research and development, calls for immediate large cuts, slashing $55 billion next year, one-sixth of the military budget.
In response to these proposals, President George Bush has presented Congress with a budget that cuts just $10 billion in 1993, a mere 3 percent reduction from its current level, and $50 billion over the next five years. Despite his rhetorical recognition that the cold war's end requires a fundamental rethinking of US priorities, he continues to cling to a force structure that expends $150 billion a year defending a Western Europe that no longer faces a conceivable military threat from the East. His stubb orn allegiance to obsolete weapons and strategies confirms in many minds the suspicion that he is less concerned with national security than with job security.
At least as important as the size of the cuts is where the money comes from and where it is going to. The president proposes to eliminate or scale back a few politically vulnerable big-ticket programs like the B-2 bomber and Seawolf submarine. His Democratic critics propose to cut a wider range of weapons systems, from the B-2, MX, and Midgetman missiles to SDI and the Trident II submarine. Many also call for reducing the massive US defense spending in Western Europe and closing now superfluous foreign a nd domestic bases.
The president and his conservative allies in Congress propose to devote the proceeds from these budget cuts to middle-class tax relief and deficit reduction. His liberal Democratic opponents prefer to devote the savings to domestic programs, ranging from education and health to rebuilding the public and industrial infrastructures.
The public overwhelmingly favors devoting the peace dividend to domestic needs. A January 30 New York Times poll finds 72 percent favoring domestic priorities, 14 percent preferring to cut the budget deficit, and just 8 percent advocating reducing taxes.
At the moment, however, the long-cherished dream of melting guns into butter is forbidden by a provision in the three-year 1990 budget agreement, by which ceilings were placed on all discretionary spending, segregated into categories of defense, domestic programs, and international aid.
In effect, the so-called "walls provision" prevents any savings realized through military cuts from being used to augment economic or social programs. Originally scheduled to run for three years ending in 1993, the walls may come tumbling down this year. If so, a sizeable struggle to determine which direction the funds will flow may ensue.
One major source of frustration for those who wish to redirect the nation's priorities is how slowly and inefficiently cuts in military spending are translated into cash available for other purposes. The Bush administration's announced intention to eliminate multiple warheads (MIRVs) from its nuclear missiles may actually entail additional dismantling costs, while its plans to cease large-scale productions of most new weapons past their design stage are unlikely to yield major savings anytime soon. Moreo ver, the plan is expected to encounter fierce congressional resistance, even from members who in principle support major cuts but not in the backyards of their own defense firms. Finally, reductions in "budget authority," the currency that proposals float in, are especially slow to be realized, offering major savings only in later "out years." Because of such delays, the president's proposed $50 billion defense cut will actually produce savings closer to $27 billion between now and 1997 - optimistically ass uming none of the cost overruns endemic to Pentagon procurement programs.
Most importantly, what seems to be missing from nearly all of the proposals currently under consideration is a clear understanding of how very deeply the world has changed over the past few years and how obsolete it has rendered most of our long-held assumptions about what is essential for national and global security. The cold war is truly over now, and a great deal of the hardware produced to wage it is now as anachronistic as the crossbow.
But the cold war's end does not necessarily make the world a safer place. In the year and a half since the last great defense budget debate, the shadow side of freedom has spawned a "new world disorder," a wildly unpredictable lurching of history as nations abandon rigid structures without any new forms of organization to take their place. The greatest danger today is not the big bang but brush fires burning here, there, and everywhere.
Yet the epidemic of ethnic conflicts on the planet can't be effectively deterred or combatted by nuclear weapons, aircraft carriers, missile shields, or even old-fashioned infantry forces.
A very different set of "weapons" must be deployed - different strategies. In Cambodia, El Salvador, Angola, and Yugoslavia, regional conflicts are being dealt with not by conventional defense - but by shuttle diplomacy and peacekeeping monitors.
We are thus left with a national security apparatus that over-defends against vanquished adversaries and is defenseless before a legion of new, diffuse threats. Not least among these is a hollowing out of the US economy as critical investments in infrastructure, education, and health are neglected while superfluous weapons continue to be built.
As in all massive enterprises, inertia rules. Weapons and strategies designed a decade ago are being deployed today, while those devised more recently will not come into service for years.
But mindsets change more slowly than blueprints. A Pentagon advisory panel recently suggested that, while the cold war's end justifies reducing the US nuclear arsenal, some 5,000 weapons should be retargeted on "every reasonable adversary" and a nuclear expeditionary force assembled with China and the third world in mind.
The odds of a nuclear attack on the US are close to nil, but the odds that its government will be drawn into using its own excess firepower in misguided efforts to reassert a self-defined world order are still too high.
The recession forces us to ask hard questions of old assumptions and to consider changes. What are the real threats facing us and how can they be defended? Has internal decay replaced external adversaries as the paramount danger? Are we neglecting fundamental sources of security - prosperity, stability and well-being - by clinging to outmoded icons of superpower supremacy?