The Defense Threat to Bush’s Budget

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President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld threw a monkeywrench in the defense planning by ordering a major review of U.S. nuclearweapons and long-term strategic defense policy. "You now have to manage thetransition from the old world to the new world," a Bush administrationofficial told the New York Times.

A comprehensive review is long overdue. The problem is whether Bush, in themeantime, can keep a leash on defense spending as political pressure mountsto spend more on the military, a common problem for Republican presidents.

During the campaign, Bush endorsed an increase in the defense budget of $45billion over 10 years. In contrast, the Gore campaign endorsed an increaseof $100 billion over 10 years, and the last Clinton budget proposed adding$53 billion to the defense budget over the next six years. For its part, theDepartment of Defense is likely to present Bush with a much higher budgetrequest than he has proposed, with the support of two recent studies.

Last year, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that an additional $50billion a year would be necessary to maintain the current force structureand operational tempo, to replace current weapons with new weapons on aone-for-one basis, and to increase military pay in line with the projectedincrease in civilian pay. A 1999 study by the Center for Strategic andInternational Studies, based on similar assumptions, estimated that thenecessary budget would be at least $100 billion a year higher than thecurrent budget.

Moreover, none of these defense budget estimates includes funds for amissile defense, the early deployment of which is supported by both Bush andSecretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The stage is set for a defense budgetproposal much larger than that endorsed by candidate Bush during hiscampaign.

President Reagan faced a similar defense challenge to his budget early in1981, as did President Bush early in 1989. In each case, a new Republicanpresident sympathetic to the military approved a larger defense budget thanhe had endorsed during the campaign, over the lonely opposition of the newOffice of Management and Budget director. These episodes are vividlydescribed in books by David Stockman and Richard Darman, both of whom wereseasoned budget analysts when they were appointed as OMB Director.

This year, the Secretary of Defense has held the job before while the OMBDirector has no defense or budget experience. So there is every reason toexpect that Bush, even more so than previous Republic presidents, riskslosing control of his budget to calls for a substantial increase in defensespending. This week, Bush agreed to commit $5.7 billion in defense spendingto soldiers' wages, improved health care, and better housing. That is not anincrease in the budget President Clinton proposed for 2002, but the totalClinton budget, $310 billion, is up $14 billion from $296 billion for 2001.President Bush has agreed to that increase and will submit it to Congress,said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. And Bush may accept moreincreases, major spending hikes, under pressure from his own party.

Unless, that is, if the review of the roles and missions that our militaryforces are expected to perform is taken seriously by the administration andCongress. Although the Cold War ended a decade ago and the U.S. will face nosubstantial potential adversary for some years, the current U.S. defensebudget (adjusted for inflation) is about equal to the average peacetimebudget of the past 50 years and to the sum of the next seven largest defensebudgets of other countries-most of which are presumably our allies. Ourmilitary forces, although reduced by about one-third, are still designed forCold War missions.

A major review may conclude that our vital national security interestsjustify an increase in the defense budget. So be it. But until such a reviewis completed, the appropriate response is to "Just say no"-especially duringthis period when a new administration is vulnerable to demands for increaseddefense spending for the next fiscal year.