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In search of national defense strategies

By Staff
March 25, 2001
No question. The job we've hired Dubya Bush to perform is a tough one. He's inherited an economy that was heading south before his arrival. His big tax cut promises are linked to ever shifting tax revenues. And the "shift" is now a major decline in revenue.
A cooling economy also heats up the need of political leaders to search for ways to recover the "happy days" of projected revenue growth. And typically the response is to encourage expenditures. The ole "spend your way out of recession" strategy.
The tax cuts are likely to be more modest than the President's initial proposal. Fancy government bookkeeping notwithstanding, a shifting economy does not bode well for reducing debt or stabilizing social security trust funds. Cutting taxes as the debt rises is not playing well politically.
Natural death
President Bush's education proposals are centered around the common, even bipartisan, recognition that public education must improve. The chances are very good that his "voucher" proposal will die a natural death, but the concept of national standards of performance will find a way into law.
Dubya's education programs are not quick fixes. Not much drama, just hard work over time to raise expectations of students and schools. The successes, if they come, will be in local school districts. After all, education is seen as a state and local responsibility in our nation.
Campaign finance reform appears headed for congressional action. Whatever the outcome, it will be tough for Dubya to achieve a public relations win on this issue. All the President's men seem intent on developing a compromise which will avoid a head on collision.
While it is very early in the legislative game, the issues score for the President is mixed. Tax cuts, less than proposed. Education, probably less than proposed. And campaign finance? Score that one for Senators McCain and Feingold.
From my perspective, President Bush's single biggest challenge is not tax cuts nor education nor catching the tarnish coming from his foot dragging on campaign finance reform. Perhaps the toughest tiger he has vowed to hunt is national defense. And I am among those who applaud his willingness to wade into the swamp of national defense policy.
Yes, I know where much of his financial support was derived. Right out of the "military-industrial complex." While that reality is troubling, at least this president is willing to go where few want to travel. Defense review and modernization.
The President's move toward improved support for military service personnel is a welcome first step. But it is a baby step or temporarizing action. The mountain the President has promised to climb is a long overdue rethinking of America's fundamental defense posture.
A post cold war world points toward changing national defense strategies. These strategies may or may not require a different force structure. But certainly modernization of equipment, including weapons, is required. Choices must be made.
Does the US need 7,000 nuclear weapons standing at ready? Probably not as much as we need safer, reliable helicopters. How many American troops should be stationed in Germany and Japan? Currently the combined total is in excess of 100,000.
There are "experts" who argue that tanks and aircraft carriers are weapons in the sunset, albeit a long, long twilight is likely. The replacements? Well now, let's spend a bundle on weapons research. But not just on large scale items. Individual weaponry is also important.
And what about an improved antimissile defense system? Absolutely. The Bush theory of international relations is to lead from strength. To walk and talk softly, forcefully and independently. Not a bad idea.
However, there are several barriers to achieving Dubya's defense reform goals. For starters, the costs are enormous. How about an increase of around 33 percent over the current defense outlays? Cutting taxes while vastly increasing defense expenditures places deep strains on other government interests. Guns or medicare? Borrow from social security for weapons research?
Of course, a new national defense strategy may lead to changed personnel requirements. And that leads to to something called Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC). Taxpayers will stand and cheer the closing of ineffective military bases. That is, the bases in other states and communities.
Unwelcome guest
BRAC is the unwelcome guest at responsible defense policy reform discussions. To his credit, President Bush has placed the issue on the table. Knee-jerk opposition to closures and realignments serves no one.
Even before the President announced his defense plans, congressional leaders were running for cover. One would think guys and gals wise enough to keep their jobs in perpetuity would sagely find ways to avoid the political heat accompanying base closure processes.
Communities impacted by the last rounds of US force reductions know the BRAC processes of the late 1980s and the 1990s were flawed in many ways. Political? Certainly. Government can not be freed from politics. There is a term for people who can find paths through the swamps of political intrigue. They are called leaders.
Will Dubya Bush successfully lead our nation to a new model of national defense? Maybe. And where is his congressional help? Avoiding or leading?
Bill Scaggs is president emeritus at Meridian Community College and a senior consulting editor for The Meridian Star. E-mail him at wscaggs@themeridianstar.com.