Military immunity Pentagon budget escapes the knife -- but should it?

September 24, 1995|By KAREN M. PAGET

Nearly six years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, all talk of a peace dividend has evaporated. The very phrase seems quaint, an echo from another era. Whole domestic agencies, meanwhile, are targeted for extinction. Welfare and homeless programs, food and nutrition programs are under the budget knife. Medicare, long considered too politically risky to cut, has lost its immunity. Only the military budget remains secure from cuts, not only off the table, but slated for increases by both the Clinton administration and congressional Republicans.

Yet credible defense analysts across a wide ideological spectrum, including former Department of Defense officials, congressional budget analysts, think tank scholars, and at least one former head of the Central Intelligence Agency, say the Pentagon could be further cut, saving as much as $200 billion over the next five years. Why the immunity?

Two propositions are working in tandem to maintain the Pentagon's protected status, one erroneous, the other problematic.

The first is the belief that, since the end of the Cold War, defense decreases have cut the military "to the bone" - to its [See Pentagon, 6f] very marrow.

The second is a vague but widespread belief that, while the Cold War may be over, the world is still a dangerous place.

Both propositions, critics say, combine fact, mythology, ideology and theology and need to be thoroughly re-examined.

Dangers exaggerated

Analysts of diverse political stripes argue that the military has not been cut to the bone, that it has the fittest, best-trained force ever, and that the global dangers faced by the United States have been exaggerated.

America's behavior in a wide variety of international hot spots, from Bosnia to Somalia to Chechnya, suggests an era with few strategic threats to the United States, in which both the administration and Congress are reluctant to intervene in foreign conflicts, no matter what the Pentagon budget.

The most hawkish figures in both parties tend to be the most isolationist. An expanded military could find itself all dressed up with no place to go.

Has the military budget been cut since the end of the Cold War? Yes, definitely.

How much has it been cut? Estimates vary from 15 percent to 40 percent, depending on what years are compared and whether inflation is taken into account.

Secretary of Defense William J. Perry says the military budget has been cut by 40 percent, a figure widely cited by politicians who support current levels of spending or who are trying to save their states' military bases or defense contracts.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein used the 40 percent figure in arguing against the recommended closure of McClelland Air Force Base. Defense hawks in the House and Senate use it routinely.

Understanding the basis

This percentage sounds dramatic until its basis is understood.

Laurence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense, now affiliated with the Brookings Institution, says the 40 percent figure is technically correct only if you use the Reagan 1985 budget year as a base.

Between 1980 and 1985, President Reagan increased defense spending slightly more than 50 percent.

Mr. Korb offers a different comparison: "Let's take the military budget and put it in today's dollars. The Clinton plan is higher than it was in 1972."

In adjusted dollars, the United States is spending more on defense today than it did in 1955, or 1975, or most of the years of the Cold War, with the exception of the Vietnam and Reagan peaks.

The 1996 budget will be about $267 billion, or 85 percent of average Cold War budgets.

These comparisons, of course, leave out the defining event, the end of the Cold War, and the many geopolitical changes that have accompanied its ending.

Together, the United States and its allies account for 70 percent to 80 percent of the world's military spending. Although estimates vary considerably, most experts say the next highest spending countries -- France, Japan and Russia -- each spend somewhere between $30 billion and $50 billion annually.

Need for new thinking

Numbers like these lead such politically different figures as Bob Borosage, director of the Campaign for New Priorities and a former Jesse L. Jackson adviser, and William Colby, former CIA director under Richard M. Nixon, to argue that we have a desperate need for new thinking.

On the libertarian right, the Cato Institute questions the need for today's spending levels. In a July 1995 report, the institute urged military spending be immediately reduced to $205 billion, with a goal of reaching $140 billion (in today's dollars) by the turn of the century.

In releasing the report, its authors note: "One of the most tenacious myths, especially among conservatives, is that there has been a dangerously excessive reduction in U.S. military spending since the late 1980s. By almost any measurement, that is not the case."

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