IN his recent visit to the Pentagon, President Clinton promised that there would be no further budget cuts on top of those already projected, despite America's economic slowdown. The cold war may be over, but the administration, which forecasts a deficit of $240 billion in 1998, nevertheless plans on spending more than $252 million on the military the same year - comparable in real terms to outlays during the 1950s, when Moscow posed a real threat.
Very different has been the response of Germany to its recession. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl has announced that his nation will reduce its force by 40 percent over the next three years, from 500,000 to 300,000.
"It cannot be stressed often enough," he told an audience that included United States Defense Secretary Les Aspin, that "a substantial (US) military presence should remain in Europe in order to meet the alliance's tasks now and in the future." American voters - now facing demands by their president to pay higher taxes - "may not understand this," Mr. Kohl allowed, "but the essence of politics is to carry out things the electorate might not immediately understand."
Yes, some things are difficult to understand. Like why Germany should feel free to dismantle its military and redirect defense funds domestically, while the US is continuing to maintain forces to protect Germany against what its leaders believe to be nonexistent threats. Washington initially bore a disproportionate defense load during the cold war for a reason: A devastated Europe was threatened by an aggressive, dangerous Soviet Union. But the NATO commitment was never conceived of as permanent. Dwight Eisenhower, among others, warned that a long-term American presence would discourage European defense efforts.
What is there to defend against today? Moscow's military remains potent, but hardly capable of sweeping through the now-independent Eastern European states, Germany, and on to the Atlantic. Indeed, Russian military spending has been falling to about $53 billion, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London - little more than that of Great Britain. Even should Yeltsin fall to a militarist coup, his successors would be lucky to hold their nation together, and we would have plent y of time to match any renewed military build-up by Moscow.
Moreover, Europe is capable of meeting any potential future Russian threat. There is something almost comical about states whose combined population and GNP exceeds that of the US, let alone of Russia, demanding a permanent US defense shield. American military spending today, some $290 billion, is seven times that of Britain, eight times that of France, and nine times that of Germany. European taxpayers, whose leaders have already cut military outlays by more than has Washington, simply want someone else , namely the US, to pay their defense bills. Indeed, less than half of Germans surveyed today even believe they need a military. If they don't think one is necessary, we surely needn't provide them one.
Of course, the real reason some officials here and abroad want Washington to preserve its European military presence is to monitor Germany. Yet a country that is planning to slash its military by 40 percent seems an unlikely aggressor against nuclear-armed Britain, France, or Russia.
There remains the desire to make troops available to help resolve such conflicts as in the Balkans. But Europe maintains sufficient forces to act. It is presumptuous of foreign officials to expect America to step in where they refuse to act; equally arrogant are US policymakers who consider putting their own citizens at risk in conflicts with so little at stake for America.
Yet if this were not reason enough to bring home and demobilize excess US forces, there is also the budgetary concern cited by Kohl. Despite the end of the cold war, US defense outlays this year are barely $8 billion less than in 1992. Having productive young men sit in tanks in Germany's Fulda Gap is a luxury that we can afford no longer. As London's Financial Times recently editorialized: "Is there a case for economically battered Britain to outspend its richer European neighbours?" No, it answered. We
should ask the same question regarding the economically battered US.
Military retrenchment does not mean isolation: The US would still possess the world's most powerful military, productive economy, dominant culture, and attractive political philosophy.
Washington simply need no longer garrison the globe, allowing its supposed allies to play it for a sucker.