- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 13, 2001

The first noteworthy intraparty skirmish of the Bush administration and Republicans on Capitol Hill got under way over a subject one might have thought an easy one for the GOP: defense spending.

Specifically, the Bush White House indicated it would not be seeking an early supplemental appropriation for the Pentagon, as had been widely expected and as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had presaged during his confirmation hearing. Rather, the administration said, there would be reviews of major nuclear and conventional programs with a view toward post-Cold War reform and restructuring.

Mr. Bush would indeed be seeking money for a pay raise for people in uniform as well as for some other quality of life improvements. But as for a rapid, major infusion of new emergency cash, no soap. Hawks on Capitol Hill and outside were vexed. The Bush-Cheney ticket campaigned on military spending increases, after all, having pointed a finger at the deleterious consequences of defense spending reductions during the post-Cold War drawdown. Help was "on the way," Dick Cheney said.

Yet upon taking office, the Bush administration was content with defense spending at the same level Bill Clinton proposed, $310 billion (up from $295 billion) an amount actually lower than what Al Gore proposed on the campaign trial, for the inadequacy of which Messrs. Bush and Cheney had flayed him.

What's going on? Is the Bush administration actually going to betray its own campaign rhetoric and go soft on defense?

I would count myself one very surprised hawk if that turned out to be the case. The Bush team could surely have handled the politics of this issue more deftly. But the idea that this administration, of all administrations, is going to be inattentive to defense is pretty absurd on its face. Nor was a defense supplemental ever a sensible test of its seriousness.

For years in Washington now, momentum has been gathering around two broad conclusions. One is that the drawdown has run its course and that it is time for defense spending to increase once again. The other is that U.S. forces need to undergo a transformation. We are still mainly living off the legacy of the force we built for the Cold War, and the assumptions on which that force was built simply don't reflect the challenges we are likely to face in the decades ahead.

The problem is that there's a certain tension between these two propositions. Specifically, while no one disputes that a transformation is going to cost more money, the infusion of money may paradoxically impede necessary reform. When it is suddenly easier, rather than somewhat difficult, to do more of the same whether or not more of the same is what one should be doing then the impulse to rethink one's activities can vanish into a satiated Pentagon bureaucracy, defense industry and its lobbies, and assorted interests on Capitol Hill.

A large supplemental defense appropriation would have been very reassuring to this community. And, no doubt about it, it would have done some good in terms of readiness and relieving other strains resulting from a mismatch in operating tempo and available resources. It would also have been politically easy for the new administration a readily available bipartisan victory of the sort that one shouldn't turn down every day.

But what about reform? In fact, the stars are rather well aligned for some basic rethinking. Indeed, the services themselves have been producing ideas that are in some cases quite radical, given the bureaucratic imperatives. It makes excellent sense to try to capture the moment; and it is at least arguable that the Bush administration's decision not to go forward with a big supplemental makes the point that this is going to be a time for reform, not just (bigger) business as usual.

It made sense for Ronald Reagan to crank up defense spending rapidly in the early 1980s not just because of need but also because the fundamental structure of the Cold War military was appropriate to the task (though even then, forward-minded thinkers were worried about lost opportunities for reform). Now, however, we do not have the structure in place; we need to create it.

What about the need? It is real. But it does not constitute an acute crisis, a clear and present danger that will leave us defenseless unless certain billions arrive by next month. And there's also a potential cost in treating it that way.

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