Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has it going. The Taliban scatter before his forces. The press swoons before his briefing room sallies. His Pentagon hit the jackpot in the annual budget sweepstakes. Fox News dubs him a "babe magnet . . . the new hunk of home-front air time." But the staggering $48 billion increase in military spending sought for next year masks the fact that Rumsfeld, the conqueror of Afghanistan, was routed in his own Pentagon. His much-advertised effort to "transform" the military is dead.
"Military transformation" was the buzz word at the top of the president's agenda when he came to office. It was time to shed "outmoded thinking," to "skip a generation of technology." Rumsfeld vowed to cancel obsolete systems, cut entrenched force structure, and forge a quicker, smarter, more mobile force to meet the threats of the future. But the Pentagon budget that Rumsfeld presented this week includes every major weapons program that was in the pipeline when he came into office. This includes $12 billion for three new jet fighter programs at once, plus the 42-ton Crusader artillery system, and heavy destroyers -- all designed to attack Soviet forces that are no more. It even includes the V-22 tilt-rotor plane that Bush I tried to kill over a decade ago. And of course, the administration's faith- based missile defense program will consume another $7.8 billion.
The $48 billion requested increase, adjusted for inflation, ranks with the Korean War mobilization. Just as Truman used the Korean War to pay for the buildup of NATO forces in Europe, Rumsfeld is using the war on terrorism to sustain the weapons and force structure he once scorned as hangovers from the Cold War.
There is no threat to justify all this. The U.S. unified military budget will top $396 billion next year -- and more when we actually put the forces to use. The $48 billion increase alone is larger than any other country's entire military budget. But it was the supposedly addled Clinton military that dispatched the Taliban. It could erase the supposed "axis of evil" at will also. Iraq, Iran and North Korea, each weaker militarily than it was a decade ago, spend a combined total of less than $12 billion a year on their forces.
The budget does boost spending on the missile-equipped drones, precision-guided weapons and high-tech sensors so visible in the assault on the Taliban. But the big-ticket items are all baroque weapons designed for another age. Rumsfeld lamely defended the military budget as "transformational," arguing that he has "never believed" transformation is about weapon systems. "I don't think of it in terms of dollars," he said. That is the sound of surrender.
Rumsfeld's rout will cost a lot, but not enough. Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, immediately announced, correctly, that the military will need $30 billion to $40 billion more a year for the weapons and forces now in the plan. It won't get that money. It will simply waste billions developing sophisticated systems it can't afford to buy in sensible numbers.
Moreover, the Pentagon remains the largest source of waste, fraud and abuse in the federal government. Its bookkeeping makes Enron look transparent. It still cannot track what it has spent money on, what it has purchased, what it has stored.
The lid on military spending over the past decade was slowly forcing the Pentagon to clean up its act. Now the pressure is off.
The United States is a rich country. It can afford to waste money on the military if that makes it feel good. But military spending now consumes over half of all discretionary spending. The domestic side of the Bush budget is a tale of small cuts and large deferred hopes -- no real prescription drug program, no drive for energy independence, no new investment in teachers and preschool, no new funding for worker training and corporate accountability.
Over time, our nonmilitary foreign programs take the biggest hit. The Bush budget cuts food assistance programs, for example. Last week the administration torpedoed the attempt of Europeans to gain a commitment from the industrial countries to double their aid budgets. Talk of "draining the swamp of poverty and despair" turns out to be just talk. We'll fight terrorism with guns, not with an investment in democracy, in basic needs, in education and health care. William Kristol hails this as a mission that befits a great nation. But it is a recipe for continuous conflict, not for building peace.
With war, recession and the president soaring in the polls, few in Congress will have the temerity to mention Rumsfeld's defeat, much less cut major weapons systems. Military spending is particularly popular in a recession. Along with homeland security, it is the stealth public works program that conservatives can love. But Rumsfeld's surrender not only squanders the best chance to reform the military in 50 years. It distorts America's priorities at home and abroad. We'll all pay the cost for that.
The writer is co-director of the Campaign for America's Future.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company