Why the Huge Defense Budget? No Answer Here

WITH Americans' tax deadline approaching, and with Washington cutting domestic spending, why is Jane Taxpayer still being asked to fork out more than $263 billion each year on defense-related programs? Is the Republic under threat? Would John Taxpayer's life be worse if the 53 percent of Washington's discretionary spending that goes into the military were drastically reduced or shifted to other purposes?

True, the defense budget has been reduced some, in real terms, since the height of the cold war in 1985. But since the cold war, policymakers have continued to support a level of military spending unprecedented in peacetime. Why? Is it because large parts of America's industrial base and work force have become addicted to military production? Or are there real, compelling reasons that can persuade the Taxpayers that military spending at this level is in their interest?

Onto my desk drops a copy of Strategic Assessment 1996, lavishly produced by the Defense Department's National Defense University. This compendium provides figures, tables, charts, and extracts from policy statements in an easy-to-use format. But by organizing the material according to the different "instruments" through which US power is projected abroad, its editors give short shrift to the central question of what these instruments are actually for.

"Peace prevails," they write, "and that is a powerful force for stability in the world ...." Nothing here to argue with - or to explain why Jane Taxpayer needs to support a large defense establishment. And later on, "the most likely conflicts in the new international system will be those with poorly defined enemies who may switch back and forth from being dubiously neutral to actively opposed." This may be true. But it isn't a convincing argument for that $263 billion.

The study's editors seem to plead that someone else engage in the tough geostrategic thinking needed to chart a course for the defense establishment. If historical analogies hold, they write, "then there is some urgency to resolving the domestic debates about what the US wants from the new international system, because the international system may be more malleable in the mid-1990s now [sic] than it will be in a few years."

With these debates unresolved, the book's editors operate on the assumption that the projection of US power abroad is in and of itself a good thing. No reflection of such age-old issues as "the security dilemma," which recognized that a nation might do things to protect its own security that would fuel an escalatory cycle and end up making everyone feel more insecure. No reflection, either, of the trade-offs that any government must make between military spending as a substitute for an industrial policy, and the kinds of social and infrastructural investment that would sustain a vibrant modern economy.

I turned to the chapter on "Unconventional Military Instruments" to find some explanation for the country's continued deployment of its still-vast nuclear arsenal. Nothing. The chapter dealt mainly with "special operations" techniques, while consideration of nuclear forces surfaced briefly in the chapter on "Classical Military Instruments." If nuclear forces are thus reclassified, does that make it easier to think of using them - again?

In the end though, the editors' strongly implied plea for more leadership in defining US goals abroad is their greatest contribution. If peace prevails, our leaders have an invaluable opportunity to re-evaluate the terms of the country's engagement with the rest of the world. How much of this engagement should be expressed through military means?

Some of the graphics in the volume hint at where we now stand. Beside the Defense Department's allocation, the nondefense-related International Affairs budget of $13 billion looks like an insult to the hard-working diplomats and others charged with the nitty-gritty of operating American relations with the world.

The world has the best chance history has ever given it of building a workable global system that can bring about the end of a need for war. The US has an unparalleled opportunity to determine whether and how this will happen. But this taxpayer is afraid that, by continuing to pour money disproportionately into the military, the chance may pass us by.

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