The Return of Reagan
The Progressive magazine, March 1999
Here we are, more than seven years after the fall of the Soviet
Union, and the United States is spending more money on the Pentagon
than it was two decades ago. The Pentagon has a budget that exceeds
that of the next ten biggest militaries combined. And still the
Joint Chiefs demand more, and still Bill Clinton gives it to them.
This money is a waste-just more candy for the kids at the Pentagon,
more cake and ice cream for the contractors.
This bloated Pentagon budget doesn't make us any safer. In
fact, some of it-like the renewed Star Wars program-places us
in more jeopardy.
When Clinton announced at the beginning of the year that he
was boosting Pentagon spending by $110 billion over the next six
years, he obliterated one more distinction between Democrats and
Republicans. His proposal, the largest increase since the days
of Reagan, sounded an all-out retreat.
"He finally caved," says William Hartung of the
World Policy Institute. "It's an abdication of his responsibility
as commander in chief. He's afraid to put them on a budget. It's
the worst time to have someone like that in charge." Hartung
believes Clinton surrendered to the Joint Chiefs "partly
because he was never confident running the place, and partly because
he's looking to give Gore some political cover."
The camouflage for this increase in Pentagon spending is to
raise the pay of the men and women in the armed services. But
that's misleading. "Overall, it's being sold as a way to
give more money to the troops and for readiness, but one of the
main goals is to spend more on unneeded, gold-plated Cold War
relics," says Christopher Hellman of the Center for Defense
Information. "It calls for spending more than $6 billion
for replacing fighter aircraft that already are the best in the
world." Other procurement items are equally unnecessary,
he says. There is money for a new and improved nuclear aircraft
carrier and for maintaining the fleet of eighteen Trident nuclear
submarines, even though the Navy said it could get by with ten
back in the Bush Administration.
The strategic rationale for this gargantuan Pentagon is still
the two-war theory: that the United States should be prepared
to fight two wars overseas at the same time. Pentagon strategists
under Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs in the Bush Administration,
'more or less worked backward," says Hartung. "They
said, 'If we want a force of this size, what threat would we need?"'
Lawrence Korb, Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan
Administration, takes issue with the two-war strategy. "It's
very unrealistic," he says. "The assumption behind it
is that while the United States is fighting one enemy the other
enemy would take advantage of us. But no one took advantage of
us during Korea, or Vietnam, or the Persian Gulf. And the reason
is, you don't start a conflict against the major superpower just
because you might have some short-term advantage since, in the
long term, we'll come back and clean your clock."
Other conservatives have come out against this level of spending.
"It's totally unnecessary," says Ivan Eland, director
of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute. He has harsh
words for the Pentagon officials who insist they are so strapped
for funds that they can't pay their personnel. "It's like
you're buying a mansion and then complaining you don't have enough
money to mow the lawn." He agrees with the Center for Defense
Information that upgrading weapons systems is silly. "We
don't need new attack submarines. We already have the best submarines
in the world."
So if increasing Pentagon spending is unjustified, why is
Clinton proposing it? "Clinton wants to nullify the military
issue," Eland says. "The Democrats have to guard against
being perceived as weak on national security. And the Republicans
don't seem to understand that Pentagon spending is government
spending. And, let's face it, there are a lot of vested interests
Eland adds that Clinton is "weak vis-a-vis the military.
He has problems with his service record, so they have more leverage
With Clinton offering so much to the Pentagon right off the
bat, it may end up getting even more. "The bidding war is
just beginning, and no one is going to be bidding any lower,"
A day after his State of the Union address, Clinton also gave
ground on Star Wars. Defense Secretary William Cohen announced
that the Administration would spend $6.6 billion over the next
five years on a national missile defense system to guard against
intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
A fantasy of Republicans since Ronald Reagan first proposed
it, a national missile defense system may sound good at first-who
could be against protecting the United States from nuclear attack?-but
it makes no sense upon close examination.
First, the technological hurdles are extremely high. The Pentagon
has already spent more than $50 billion on a missile defense system
"that has yet to deploy or successfully test a single reliable
device," Hartung wrote recently in World Policy Journal.
"In fact, the most impressive products to come out of our
$55 billion, fifteen-year investments in missile defenses to date
are the flashy 'artist's conceptions' of how mature systems might
work, which the military services and defense contractors duly
trot out whenever Congress threatens to cut back the Star Wars
John Pike, the director of space programs at the Federation
of American Scientists, takes an equally chary view. "It
won't work," he says. "They've had fifteen tests of
what they're trying to deploy and only two have hit anything.
It's not a workable technology. And now they are going to test
it a grand total of three more times before they decide whether
to deploy it or not. Ask yourself: Would you fly on an airplane
that has crashed thirteen out of fifteen times and is only going
to be tested three more? It's buggier than Microsoft software."
And even if the technology were miraculously to work during
tests, it would be easy for an enemy to elude or confound the
missile defense system once it was set up. "We could deploy
a system against ICBMs that, like friendly puppies, beg to be
destroyed," wrote Richard Garwin, a Senior Fellow for Science
Technology at the Council on Foreign Relations, in a letter
to Inside Missile Defense in January. "But in the real world,
any nation that fields ICBMs against the United States" would
take "simple countermeasures."
It would be easy to send a missile with biological bomblets
that "would be immune from intercept by any of the techniques
considered" by the Pentagon, said Garwin, who designed nuclear
weapons at Los Alamos. And if the missile carried nuclear weapons,
it most likely would be coming with a "simple countermeasure
that would certainly be effective against the planned deployment."
The history of the arms race is littered with innovations
that were supposed to secure one nation's safety or superiority
but proved ephemeral at best and destabilizing at worst. Missile
defense is just the latest. And the irony is, it doesn't even
address the most likely threat against the United States. That
threat is not from North Korea lobbing a nuclear missile at us.
Such an action would be suicidal. "If they did fire it, we
would blow them up," Pike says. "Kim Jong Il is not
stupid. He didn't wait this long to inherit the family business
only to throw it all away."
As many analysts point out, a missile is the least likely
threat against the United States, since the Pentagon would know
right away who launched it.
"If I were a nation that sponsored terrorism, I wouldn't
want to attack the United States with a missile that said quite
clearly where it came from," says Daryl Kimball of the Coalition
to Reduce Nuclear Dangers. "I would rather come into the
United States and plant a bomb here." Kimball calls missile
defense the Maginot Line of the nineties.
Garwin agrees. "If these countries really wanted to hurt
us, they would use shorter-range missiles from ships, nuclear
weapons blowing up in harbors, purchased cruise missiles if they
like, small airplanes that could fly out of shipping containers
on a ship. And that's a much easier job," he said on the
NewsHour With Jim Lehrer on January 28. "We shouldn't feel
protected against malign intent from these countries."
Going ahead with the missile defense system could actually
make the United States more vulnerable, since it would exacerbate
tensions between the United States and Russia, as well as the
United States and China.
"It's another poke at the Russians on the heels of NATO
expansion," says Hartung. "To have a strategy of provoking
the Russians is insane." When Defense Secretary Cohen announced
that the United States may renegotiate or pull out of the 1972
Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty so as to go forward with missile
defense, the Russians immediately denounced the effort.
"Sooner or later, someone in Russia's going to say, 'The
bear needs to wake back up again and be threatening again.' Someone's
going to say, 'Look, we tried to be nice and what did it get us?'
It is further confirmation, as if more were needed, that the only
way Russia gets respect is to go back to the old way of doing
business," says Pike. "Missile defense provides the
Russians with the sovereign excuse not to go along with START
II and START III," which would greatly reduce their arsenal.
"If, in the course of creating a limited missile defense,
the United States leads Russia to hesitate to make further reductions
in weapons, we are increasing the real threat that exists today,"
says Kimball. "There are 5,000 Russian missiles on hair-trigger
alert. This is a far greater risk to the United States and global
security than a missile attack from North Korea."
Then there's China. "I'm a little less worried about
the Russians than the Chinese," says Pike. "China has
thirteen missiles that could reach the United States, and China
is introducing a new generation of solid-fueled missiles. When
we did that, we went from having many dozens of missiles to having
many thousands of missiles. If China sees us deploying missile
defense, it is very easy to imagine that the Chinese will engage
in a significant build-up."
Antagonizing Russia and China while building a shield against
a prospective North Korean missile makes no sense to John Rhinelander,
who helped negotiate the ABM treaty. "I don't think the threat
from North Korea is as important by any means as the problem with
the Russians and the Chinese," Rhinelander said when he appeared
with Garwin on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. "The Russians
have thousands of weapons now which could destroy us. And China
has maybe ten to twenty.... We ought to be focusing on them....
What we are doing is counterproductive."
Meanwhile, missile defense is great news for Pentagon contractors
Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon. "The big three are
deep into this," says Hartung of the World Policy Institute.
"It's basically a free lunch. We gave them $55 billion, and
nothing works and still they get more money. If this wasn't for
the military, you'd have to peel the Republicans off the roof,
but because Ronald Reagan blessed it, it's OK."
How small could the Pentagon budget be without jeopardizing
our security? "That depends on how you define what are the
vital interests of the United States," says Eland of the
Cato Institute. "No one's discussed that. They've kept all
the assumptions from the Cold War." Eland says the Pentagon
budget should be about $175 billion. "I'd whack $100 billion
off the budget," he says.
Former Pentagon official Korb takes a similar view. He has
proposed cutting around $40 billion off the budget right away
and much more down the road. "Rather than adding in excess
of $100 billion to the defense budget over the next six years
as proposed by President Clinton, I believe we should be reducing
the defense budget by at least $100 billion over the same time
period," he said in testimony prepared for the Senate Budget
On the left, the proposals range from the modest to the ambitious.
"We can safely cut between $40 or $50 billion over the next
couple of years without hurting security a bit," says Hellman
of the Center for Defense Information.
"You could probably cut $80 billion pretty lickety split,"
says Scott Nathanson, the deputy director of Demilitarization
for Democracy, a group based in Washington, D.C.
"You could easily cut $40 to $50 billion by abandoning
the two-war strategy, stopping big-ticket purchases, and eliminating
pork and waste," says Hartung. "And with a more creative
defense strategy, one where you're not pushing arms all over the
world, you could cut $100 billion."
The most far-reaching proposal, though, comes from Randall
Forsberg, executive director of the Institute for Defense and
Disarmament Studies, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A longtime
peace activist, she has been putting together a rock-bottom budget
of $80 billion. Her proposal has three components.
First, she would spend $20 billion strictly on defending U.S.
territory. This includes funding NORAD (the North American Air
Defense command), transforming the National Guard into the army,
and maintaining a small naval force.
Second, she would spend $30 billion on maintaining a strategic
deterrent force and for satellite-based intelligence and communications.
Yes, that means keeping nuclear weapons, but only about 200 single-warhead
missiles based on submarines. "I'd like to see the process
of disarmament not be unilateral," she says. "If the
United States advocated cutting its nuclear arsenal to the minimum
deterrence levels, we could get everyone to come with us. And
then we could move jointly to eliminate nuclear weapons."
And third, she would spend $30 billion for multilateral peacekeeping
forces and to prevent genocide. "I'm very much an internationalist,"
Whether you favor Forsberg's $80 billion Pentagon budget,
or Cato's $175 billion, or the $220 billion that the Center for
Defense Information and others are talking about, they all are
a fraction of Clinton's proposal, which stands at $267 billion
for the year 2000 and will soar into the $300 billions a few years
"Clinton has become so busy co-opting Republican issues,
he's becoming Reagan," says Hartung.
And it's not just Clinton. The Democrats as a whole are muffling
their traditional criticism of runaway Pentagon spending. Gone
from Congress are such Pentagon watchdogs as Ronald Dellums, Democrat
of California, who as chairman of the Armed Services Committee
was not afraid to admonish the Joint Chiefs and offer a saner,
more stripped-down alternative budget.
"We don't have any strong champions on Capitol Hill,"
The tragedy is that the conditions for world peace are greater
now than they have been at almost any time since World War II.
The horror of nuclear weapons has seared itself into the global
consciousness. The threat of global nuclear conflagration has
receded in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse. The futility
of the arms race is now obvious. The international treaty to rid
the globe of anti-personnel land mines shows that cooperation
is possible, even though the United States still refuses to go
To be sure, the dangers of chemical and biological warfare
are with us, and we need to defend against them. But we don't
need a Pentagon budget approaching $300 billion for that.
"There is a historic opportunity today," says Pike
of the Federation of American Scientists. "War should be
substantially less relevant in the twenty-first century than it
was in the twentieth. We have a real opportunity to expand the
zone of peace."
Unfortunately, President Clinton seems dead-set on squandering