GEORGE W. BUSH is widely regarded as the avatar of a conservative restoration, but he is the opposite. This presidency marks a radical overthrow of traditional American values and policies. Civil liberties are obviously at issue in the new regime of homeland security, but the most drastic shift involves American attitudes toward war.
For a generation, the massive US arsenal has been managed with the purpose of not being used. With the exceptions of the Gulf War and the NATO air war against Serbia, this purpose was achieved. It was rooted in the post-Vietnam assumption that war is a last resort, to be avoided if possible. And it was confirmed when the terrifying conflict with the Soviet Union ended nonviolently, a victory for the policies of deterrence and containment that finally enabled the Soviet peoples themselves to take back their governments. Something called the ''peace process'' moved from the idealistic fringe to the heart of the exercise of American power.
Now, a radically different assumption is undergirding American purpose, a repudiation of the experience of the last 55 years. With putative battlefields around the globe, war is all at once being defined as the essence of who we are, and nothing makes this clearer than the new Pentagon budget.
For the next fiscal year, the Bush administration proposes to spend nearly $400 billion on defense. Last week, in testimony before the House Budget Committee, Lawrence J. Korb of the Council on Foreign Relations and Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, put this figure in perspective. It represents a 30 percent increase over last year; a level 15 percent more, averaged annually, than what the Cold War required; the biggest budget jump since Vietnam. If approved, America's military spending will exceed the total defense outlays ''of the next 15 countries in the world combined.'' This year's ''increase of $48 billion alone is more than the total military budgets of every nation in the world.''
This budget request, Korb observed, surpasses any budget that Donald Rumsfeld sent to Congress when he served as secretary of defense during the height of the Cold War. But doesn't Rumsfeld's war on terrorism require such urgent increases? No. As Korb notes, the war in Afghanistan has cost about $6 billion, and the budget for next year allocates $10 billion for the ongoing conflict against terrorism - both figures falling far short of the new increases which, Korb argues, will push the budget total to $580 billion by 2007.
The proposal funds programs and equipment that will play no role in any conceivable war against stateless terrorists - high-tech aircraft, submarines, tanks, the missile defense system. Fulfilling just these commitments will cost more than $100 billion. All of which amounts, in Korb's view, to ''throwing ... money at the Pentagon and refusing to make choices.''
Korb's is a lonely voice in this debate, and, incidentally, not one raised from the left. He served as assistant secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan.
Here are the questions raised by the Bush administration's proposed military budget:
Who benefits? Alas, the old answer, in the era of Enron, suggests itself with a new edge. Of dubious security value, these unprecedented expenditures will enrich resuscitated defense contractors and reelect politicians they fund. Compared to this nexus of corporate-political corruption, Enron is benign.
Aware that the preparation for war has its own momentum, are we setting loose forces we cannot control? Has the shoot-first-ask-questions-later mode of the war on terrorism led to a new recklessness in relation to anticipated wars against states that alone justify such a budget?
Knowing what the effect on our enemies of such a massive new arsenal will be, what will be its effect on us, just having it? The moral question: When America could have used its unprecedented power to lead the world away from war, what will it reveal about our national character that we did the opposite?
If this budget is adopted, will it mean that we Americans responded to our traumatic season of vulnerability with a radical new military posture because it seemed to salve a wound? World violence more likely, the long-term economic health of our own country undermined - and for what? To feel better?
These questions boil down to questions about our president. In proposing such a wildly disproportionate defense budget, is Bush deluded, or is he cynical? Is he consciously exploiting the nation's moment of uncritical patriotism, or is he himself ontologically uncritical? And which would be worse?
In wrapping himself in the flag, while putting the interests of defense contractors ahead of the nation's, is Bush betraying what the flag stands for? And while this radical change is being implemented in Washington, why aren't conservatives asking such questions?