'Payroll -- oops! -- payload'

Sandy Grady

October 02, 1991|By Sandy Grady

Washington -- IN THE comic strip "Peanuts" there's an epic moment each fall when Charlie Brown prepares to kick off a football. Lucy, the holder, pipes up, "Trust me this time, Charlie."

But once again, she yanks the football away as Charlie Brown does a sprawling, windmill pratfall.

Call it the triumph of experience over hope.

Something like that happened Friday night in George Bush's dramatic TV speech. Huzzah, break out the champagne! At last Bush admitted the Cold War was over. He would make huge, imaginative cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal and dare the Soviets to do the same.

Then, like Lucy, Bush yanked away the football.

"Some will say these initiatives call for a budget windfall for domestic programs," the president said with a thin smile. "But the peace dividend I seek is measured in security, not dollars. In the near term, some of these steps may even cost money."

Wait a minute, did I miss something?

You mean we're going to destroy all our tactical, short-range missiles, eliminate all nuclear-tipped cruise missiles from Navy ships, take B-52 bombers off alert, end two expensive mobile-missile programs -- and we end up with no money?

That's as depressing as paying off a house mortgage over 40 years and hearing your banker say, "Sorry, pal, you owe us."

Talk about the Grinch that stole Christmas.

The next day reporters asked Defense Secretary Dick Cheney how he magically made the peace dividend vaporize into thin air.

"There are added costs in terminating contracts, moving systems around, destroying missiles, et cetera," said Cheney.

When you're dumping nukes, those "et ceteras" add up.

The mystery of the Vanishing Peace Dividend has politicians bamboozled. They feel like rubes conned at a country-fair shell game.

I mean, how do you eliminate several thousand tactical nukes, shelve production of 200 new short-range (SRAM II) nukes ($2.3 billion), stop a mobile-missile program ($6.3 billion), end the 34-year bomber alert and not save a penny?

"Telling the American people there'll be no money is unreal," fumed Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., Appropriations panel honcho. "They'll think politicians are nuts."

Even the hawks were puzzled. Sen. John Warner, R-Va., inquired Monday of Gen. Colin Powell, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when the peace dividend would show up.

The general went into his poor-boy mode. "We're downsizing the armed forces 25 percent," he said. "But it's premature to say there'll be a huge dividend."

Brent Scowcroft, Bush's national security adviser, threw a sop to the peaceniks. "In the long run there'll be a dividend, hopefully sizable."

Translation: Clap your hands if you believe in Tinker Bell.

Sure, Bush deserves credit for seizing the historic moment. The thought of 15,000 nukes sloshing around Soviet republics, where they might be peddled to terrorists, was sobering. Bush even dared propose to the Soviets that both sides give up multiple-warhead, land-based ICBMs, satanically dangerous gizmos out of the Nixon era.

But surprisingly, Bush reaped muted cheers on Capitol Hill. A hard-core defense maven, Sen. Malcolm Wallop, R-Wyo., grumbled, "Those tactical weapons aren't toasters. The president made a serious misjudgment."

The Vanishing Peace Dividend, though, taints Bush's deserved moment of glory. It plays into 1992 Democrats' charge that Bush doesn't care about America's crumbling schools, roads and hospitals.

Now comes the Reverse Arms Race. The Soviets and Democrats will apply pressure to chop more hardware out of the Pentagon toy store. After all, polls show four out of 10 Americans would cut the defense budget in half.

Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., admits the B-2 Stealth bomber -- the Air Force wants 75 at $865 million each -- is in trouble. Such big-ticket baubles as the $2 billion Seawolf submarine and ground-based Star Wars are also shaky.

And the cry of "America First," a phrase from pre-World War II isolationists, will pick up decibels. There'll be a demand to save money by pulling U.S. troops from overseas.

"We can't withdraw to Fortress America," protests Powell.

But why defend Germany, Japan and South Korea, countries that are grabbing U.S. markets? Why not turn NATO over to the Europeans?

And if the Cold War's kaput, why not cut back the bungled, outmoded nuclear-bomb complex that costs $11 billion a year? Or convert defense industries into domestic plants to rival Japan?

Despite Bush's splendid dump-the-nukes surprise, there was a hint of business-as-usual. Listen to Dick Cheney's pitch for the the B-2 bomber:

"We need a bomber that carries a payroll worldwide," said Cheney.

Oops! "Uh, I meant payload. A slip of the tongue."

The peace dividend is like a critter out of Dr. Seuss -- it's George Bush's bedtime story.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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