Reprinted with permission from the Washington Post, July 20, 2001
Friday, July 20, 2001
President Bush's defense budget is inadequate and reckless. Who says so? His own deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz. In little-noticed testimony before Congress last week, Wolfowitz said it was "reckless to press our luck or gamble with our children's future" by spending only 3 percent of America's gross national product on defense. Bush's proposed defense budget of $329 billion puts defense spending at 3 percent. As Republicans liked to point out during the Clinton years, it hasn't been that low since Pearl Harbor.
Wolfowitz's gutsy whistle-blowing follows a losing battle with the White House. According to administration sources, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asked the White House last month for a $35 billion increase over the Clinton defense budget. The Office of Management and Budget sliced his request in half. This week Rumsfeld said he would need at least another $18 billion next year, but OMB has said he won't get more than $10 billion.
So much for Vice President Dick Cheney's campaign promise to the military: "Help is on the way." Tax rebate checks are on the way. Real help for the military is not. Last year Cheney warned that defense budget "shortfalls" in the Clinton era were forcing the military to cut back on training and exercises and creating dangerous "shortages of spare parts and equipment." But this week Rumsfeld frankly told Congress that Bush's budget "does not get us well." Joint Chiefs Chairman Henry Shelton was even more blunt: "We're not going to be able to make significant inroads into fixing the modernization and the transformation and the infrastructure at three cents on the dollar. . . . I don't believe that we'll be able to sustain our long-term readiness under these conditions." All of which led Democratic Rep. Norman Dicks to ask why, if both Rumsfeld and Shelton "know that the country is underfunding the defense budget," they couldn't "convince the president and OMB . . . that we've got to have a significant increase, or we're going to let America's military capability deteriorate?"
Rumsfeld had no answer, but it's a good question. Serious defense experts of all political hues agree that even Rumsfeld's original $35 billion request was low. Jimmy Carter's defense secretary, Harold Brown, and former defense secretary James Schlesinger have argued in these pages for an increase of at least $50 billion a year, and former Clinton Pentagon officials agree. The Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines say they need $32 billion this year just to keep planes flying, tanks rolling and troops training. Never mind buying new weapons systems to replace those that are now a quarter-century old. As one Pentagon official put it, President Bush's $18 billion is barely enough "to keep us treading water." With $9 billion set aside for military housing, health and pay increases, Bush's budget gives Rumsfeld too little to repair the military's readiness problems, much less to modernize and "transform" it to fight the wars of the future.
So now what? Rumsfeld says he'll try to make up for the inadequacies of the president's budget by increasing "efficiency" at the Pentagon. But even if he eliminates all the waste -- improbable -- and persuades Congress to close more military bases -- highly improbable -- he'll be lucky to eke out a few billion dollars. Shelton is more candid: If your armed forces don't have the capability to carry out their missions, he told Congress this week, you can either increase the capabilities or decrease the missions. Whether Bush realizes it or not, he has chosen the latter course.
In fact, Bush's inadequate defense budget will soon start driving his foreign policy, if it hasn't already. The first casualty may be the American role in Europe. Last month Bush promised to enlarge NATO and to keep U.S. troops in the Balkans as long as necessary. But Rumsfeld's top adviser, Stephen Cambone, has bluntly warned the Army that it will lose two or more divisions under the new budget. Most of those cuts will come in Europe, which will make the U.S. presence in the Balkans increasingly difficult to sustain and raise doubts about Bush's commitment to NATO, much less to an enlarged NATO.
That's just the beginning. Bush officials say they intend to shift America's strategic focus to Asia. Fine. With what? The Navy, which had almost 600 ships in the 1980s, now has 310, but Rumsfeld warns that lack of money is driving the number down to an "unacceptable" 230. The chief of naval operations says stocks of precision-guided munitions -- the wonder-weapon of choice in Kosovo and Iraq -- are "below the current war fighting requirement," which poses a "major risk" to U.S. forces. The Air Force says the number of aircraft readily available for use in combat has been steadily declining due to shortages of spare parts and maintenance. Add it all up and Bush's stated commitments to defend Taiwan and get tough with Saddam Hussein start to look pretty hollow. Maybe Bush's soft approach to Iraq since February has been driven by the fear that he literally can't afford another conflict. Or, to be more precise, he doesn't want to afford it.
Remember when Republicans were more trustworthy on defense and national security than Democrats? This Bush presidency may change all that. After years of berating Clinton, Republicans are suddenly mute -- what defense budget crisis? -- while Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz are hung out to dry.