Testing the Defense Secretary's Mettle

Did you ever wonder what happened to that "big bonus" we were to receive by the ending of the cold war - which we were told we would see in a much smaller defense budget and a marked decrease in our taxes?

I asked Defense Secretary William S. Cohen to solve this mystery at a Monitor breakfast. He assured us that whether we knew it or not we were getting this bonus in our defense budget - in both the current one and the one he is proposing.

"We have had some rather substantial changes in our expenditures and force size since the height of the cold war," he explained. "I'd say [the reduction] is about a third, somewhere close to almost 40 percent."

Mr. Cohen told us that morning that he would seek to improve the bonus for Americans by bringing about a "revolution in military affairs." This would entail, he said, "starting to do business as businesses are conducting their affairs today, taking advantage of technology, getting rid of a lot of duplication, slimming down, getting rid of a lot of fat that has accumulated over the years through simply the accumulation of bureaucratic inertia."

Where did that 'big bonus' go?

Cohen - probably thinking of those many Democrats who believe the military should be cut even more than has happened thus far - then said that we should not forget about the bonus we have received in "quite a stable world compared to what it could be if we had dramatically reduced and cut back even further and retreated to the United States as some would like."

He added:

"You're seeing a great deal of prosperity in the Pacific, which we are sharing. You're seeing prosperity in Europe as well. And so that's part of the bonus that people have also received by virtue of our military forces."

By this time in the defense secretary's argument, he had almost persuaded me (he's a most persuasive fellow). But I still am baffled by where that bonus went. Did some of you get tax cuts out of it? I didn't. In fact, although it seems that some tax relief is finally coming, my taxes have gone up since the Soviets caved in a few years ago. Also, that defense budget still looks huge. Has it really shrunk that much?

Do we still need to have a force that is able to fight two wars at the same time? Do we have a defense that reflects a clear-cut presidential foreign policy? I asked myself these questions after listening for an hour to this very verbal, personable, and certainly well-meaning secretary.

Highly regarded - even by critics

I thought about some other things, too, while watching Cohen's graceful, good-humored performance as he fielded scores of pesky questions:

President Clinton is pretty fortunate that this Republican was willing to cross over and help him with the massive defense tasks. Cohen, first as a congressman and then as a senator from Maine, has always been highly regarded by his colleagues on both sides of the political aisle. Thus, he is able to bring a sense of credibility to his job that, while it won't silence the congressional critics of his plans, will still bring civility to both the critics and to the debate.

Regarding this surprising move of bipartisanship on the president's part, we asked Cohen how he was getting along with Mr. Clinton. "Our relationship has been a good one," he said. "I have total access to him. I love my job."

Shortly after he uttered these words, the secretary found himself engulfed in the sex-in-the-military-service mess. He asked a panel to see if there aren't better ways of dealing with these problems. Then he took a trip abroad, doubtless happy to escape the heat of criticism he was feeling in Washington.

The question for me to ponder now is inescapable: Does Cohen still "love" his job?

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