FACED with democratization in Eastern Europe, the public's perception of a fading Soviet threat, the push for deficit reduction, and pressures to increase domestic spending, Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney did the strategically sound thing. He took the offensive. Mr. Cheney asked the services to come up with $180 billion in projected budget cuts for the years 1992 to '94. That would amount to a trim of about 5 percent. He's also likely to accept budget reductions in the 1991 Pentagon budget.
The Air Force was first to come in with its proposals, including the closing of 15 bases (out of 140) and elimination of five fighter wings. But when it came to weapons development, the Air Force opted for the tried-and-true method of stretching out procurement schedules, instead of canceling projects, as Cheney may ultimately demand.
Now the Army has proposed eliminating three divisions, which would cut about 200,000 uniformed and civilian jobs, and abandoning plans to modernize its main battle tank, the M-1.
The secretary correctly anticipates that his budget is becoming vulnerable to frenzied hacking unless he moves out front and manages the pruning. As events in Europe splinter the image of a solid communist bloc poised to spread its system by force of arms, Americans in and out of Congress are going to reconsider the nation's priorities. Cries for more money to combat drugs, for education, housing, and environmental protection, will grow louder. Shrill, if less numerous cries will demand an attack on the deficit.
Military spending is one great hunk of the federal pie (about one-quarter) that can be assaulted without instant political pain.
But a general raid on the Pentagon's budget is ill-advised. US military might is intricately involved with the world political order that has deterred major conflict for four decades. If that might is to be withdrawn or reduced, it must be done thoughtfully and carefully.
Any pullback from Europe has to be calibrated with a closely monitored Soviet withdrawal. Stability demands this, and stability - for all its stodgy connotation in an era of rapid change in Europe - serves everyone's goals.
A lessening of US military presence in Europe, should it come, needn't mean a retreat to American isolationism of old. Washington will have to form a new relationship with a more unified, post 1992 Western Europe in any case, and it should play a crucial role in shaping a freer, more prosperous Eastern Europe.
Secretary Cheney has chosen to leap toward that future with a preemptive strike on his own budget. His wariness of a still massively armed Soviet Union is unquestioned. The US is not about to set foot on a slippery slope toward unilateral disarmament.
Diplomatic acuity and economic dexterity, not only numbers of guns - or even megatonnage - are the measures of might. The budget maneuvers in Washington have to take account of that.