The $288.3 billion defense authorization passed by Congress and accepted by the administration demonstrates that the diminishing Soviet threat is far more of a driving force in Washington's military thinking than the Iraqi challenge.
Saddam Hussein's seizure of Kuwait has inflated the defense budget by about $5.5 billion more than it might have been. But more to the point, with the Soviet empire disintegrating, final authorization was an impressive $19 billion below what Defense Secretary Richard Cheney requested.
Even though Congress could not bring itself to cancel any of the huge, costly weapons systems associated with superpower rivalry, the measure represented a first, tentative step into the post-Cold War era. Unless there is a shooting war in the Persian Gulf, Congress is likely to be much bolder next year in cutting the defense budget and restructuring the armed forces.
Much will depend on Mr. Cheney's eagerly awaited six-year defense strategy plan. So far the Pentagon chief has proven to be flexible in negotiations with Capitol Hill but has not demonstrated the kind of strategic vision Congress always demands but rarely gets or acknowledges.
If the Persian Gulf crisis has had any impact on the defense bill, it is in funds for deployment. The Senate-House conference committee approved $300 million to continue production of C-17 transports, a project that might have been canceled but for the demonstrated need for more airlift capacity. It also okayed $200 million to improve sealift capability. (The costs of Operation Desert Shield are financed separately.)
Although Congress agreed to reduce overall military personnel by 80,000 -- more than double the number proposed by Mr. Cheney -- it was lamentably flabby in canceling weapons systems or closing military bases. Both these sectors entail home-district jobs or contracts, and are therefore the subject of much horse-trading.
Base-closing was shunted off to a commission whose recommendations will have to be accepted in toto or not at all. On weapons systems, a strange alchemy prevailed between the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. If one panel was against the B-2, the other was for it. Same for the Strategic Defense Initiative, the MX rail garrison missile, Tridents and other programs. In the end, every single major weapons system survived, although the fate of the B-2 Stealth bomber was left as deliberately invisible as its radar-thwarting protective coating.
According to analysts of the independent, often-critical, Defense Budget Project, Congress did about as good a job as could reasonably be expected -- even in the midst of the budget fiasco. Nonetheless, the first Pentagon budget that accurately reflects the end of the Cold War has yet to emerge. Maybe next year.