Pentagon Purse Strings

A LOT of hopes rest on a reduction in the defense budget. Some conservatives urge spending the ``peace dividend'' on programs to strengthen the American family. Liberals, of course, have lists of places where defense dollars could be put to better use. The hopes were heightened this week by Mikhail Gorbachev's call, at a Central Committee plenum, for an end to the Communists' monopoly on power.

Yet the Pentagon budget put forward by the Bush administration gives little, if any, hint of a financial dividend from reduced East-West tensions. Hence tensions have risen in Washington. Legislators have grilled Defense Secretary Richard Cheney about the need to toss all those billions of dollars at the MX missile, the Strategic Defense Initiative, the B2 bomber and other big-ticket items geared to continued superpower conflict.

Mr. Cheney answered, quite simply, that the conflict won't be over until the treaties are signed. For good measure, he threw in time-tested arguments about continued modernization of Soviet nuclear forces and the need to keep up.

For the past eight years, however, the United States has done more than keep up. It has financed a huge increase in strategic weapons development. Now that the world scene is swiftly changing, would even a measured cutback in strategic weapons development, acknowledging the changes, threaten US security? We doubt it.

US allies in Europe are busily drawing up their own military reduction plans. President Bush's proposal to scale back troops in Central Europe to 195,000 on each side is an effort to keep the US abreast of the times. Even that proposal, a leap beyond past administration positions, likely faces tremendous pressure for downward revision.

Back in Congress, lawmakers who normally scream for Pentagon cuts whimper at the prospect of closing an obscure naval air station back home. The budget's emphasis on base closings adds a strong dose of chili powder to the political stew. Still, many bases need to be closed, and legislators with the steel to close them will enjoy a stronger position to push for other reductions.

Now that the Pentagon has proposed a 2 percent drop in its spending, critics demand 5 percent - and events, typified by Mr. Gorbachev's latest move, are on their side.

The defense budget is inevitably headed downward. A peace dividend of some description may yet materialize. What must materialize much sooner is a thoughtfully drawn strategic plan that can give the Pentagon's budget gyrations direction and logic.

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