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 here."

Eland adds that Clinton is "weak vis-a-vis the military. He has problems with his service record, so they have more leverage over him."

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," Hellman warns.

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 budget."

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 and

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 Committee.

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," she says.

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 later.

"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," laments Hartung.

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 along.

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 that opportunity.

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