Defense On a Budget
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.