IS the Big Chill back? No new economy has appeared yet on the horizon to threaten United States national security, but if the incoming Republican majority has its way, the Pentagon's budget will soon reverse its post-cold-war decline and begin to climb again toward its historic highs in the 1980s.
Unsatisfied with President Clinton's recent pledge of a $25 billion bonus over the next five years, Republicans are now calling for $100 billion to $126 billion more, maintaining the military budget at current inflation-adjusted levels through the year 2002, and restoring a ''firewall'' to prevent the transfer of savings from defense budget cuts to augment social programs.
In their zeal to enact their ''Contract With America,'' however, House Republican leaders may find themselves trapped in a budgetary bind of their own making.
A new study by the nonpartisan Defense Budget Project reveals that while the Clinton adminstration's plan calls for military spending to fall by just 12 percent between 1995 and 2002, enactment of the Republican-sponsored balanced-budget amendment on top of a middle-class tax cut could force defense spending cuts by as much as 47 percent over the same period. Even in the unlikely event that Republicans succeed in holding defense spending to current levels, forgo their long-promised tax cut, and slash en titlements, all remaining federal programs would need to be reduced by 26 percent, disabling many of the most essential governmental functions.
Unwise and unworkable as are such contradictory demands of the federal budget, the attempt to enact these proposals and others contained in the ''National Security Restoration Act'' of the Republican Contract could do irreparable harm to the nation's real security. Prime targets for defunding are the so-called ''nontraditional'' tasks that the Pentagon has recently undertaken, in response to the changing strategic environment. Taken together, these activities amount to just $12 billion a year, less than
5 percent of the total military budget. But they attract the ire of congressional conservatives because they represent the first tentative steps toward a new approach to national security that traditionalists find threatening.
Among the first casualties of the Republican attack will be continued US support for United Nations peacekeeping, which even under the Clinton administration policy has been steadily weakening. Days after the Republican victory, Senate majority leader Bob Dole introduced legislation that would severely constrain any future American participation in UN missions. Mr. Dole and others demand that the US contribution to the organization's peacekeeping budget (already hundreds of millions in arrears) be slash ed from 33 percent to 25 percent.
Republicans are also taking aim at nascent efforts to clean up toxic wastes on the Pentagon's vast holdings and convert closed bases to effective reuse as educational institutions, industrial and natural parks, and low-cost housing. Though the promise of a demilitarized economy remains immense, progress has been dismayingly slow since the cold war's end, obstructed in part by bureaucratic inertia but still more by weak political will and powerful interests that continue to profit from the old arrangemen ts.
AND what will these military budget hikes buy? The weapon system most favored by the new majority is ballistic missile defenses, a revival of the Reagan-era Star Wars program, which squandered more than $36 billion in the past decade. Despite Strategic Defense Initiative's apparent death, however, its successor programs have continued to consume more than $3 billion a year. With Republican leadership, spending on ballistic missile defenses is likely to soar, offering opportunities for further scientific
fraud and financial malfeasance.
American moves to construct a ballistic missile defense covering the entire nation would severely undermine the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and perhaps prompt its abrogation by Russia. Already, Republicans are planning a legislative assault on the ABM Treaty early in the new congressional session to clear the way for full-scale deployment. The mere prospect of such a program could become an issue undermining support for an extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty at this April's crucial review conference.
START I, START II, and other major nuclear arms control treaties painstakingly negotiated over the past decade could be threatened as well if Russia's brutal repression of Chechnya prompts Congress to cut further economic aid to Russia. In the years when it would have made the greatest difference, this assistance has been far too meager to be effective. But if denied, it could trigger a shift in an increasingly authoritarian Russia toward nonaccommodation with the West across a broad range of issues, un dermining the entire infrastructure of arms control.
The domestic effects of an imminent reversal of the decline in military spending would cut both ways, benefiting a well-positioned few while depriving a great many other Americans of essential needs. Major arms producers would profit handsomely; Los Angeles, Seattle, Texas, Virginia, southern California, and other military-dependent regions would see fortunes rise.
But the great majority of Americans would experience a deepening decline in public services and quality of life, as well as rising crime and violence as economic opportunities for the less advantaged evaporate. The social decay and physical disintegration of our inner cities is a direct outcome of excessive military spending, insufficient social support, and inadequate infrastructure maintenance during the Reagan-Bush era.
But it is as nothing next to the devastation and rage that would infest the mean streets of America if a financially profligate Pentagon were shielded from the scalpel while the last tatters of our real national security were shredded in a misconceived effort to save money. That kind of savings could destroy us as a nation.