By MARK THOMPSON/WASHINGTON
When presidential candidates, especially Republicans, head to South Carolina's Citadel military college, it's time to hang on to your wallet. Rudy Giuliani spoke at graduation last May, and called for boosting the Army by 100,000 soldiers — 35,000 more than the 547,000 the Pentagon wants by 2010. On Tuesday, Fred Thompson saw Giuliani's 100,000, and then raised him by nearly 200,000, calling for a 775,000-member force. Thompson also got the military-industrial complex salivating by proposing that 4.5% of the U.S. gross domestic product should be earmarked for defense (not including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq), up 10% from the military's current slice of the economic pie. Numbers crunched by the Senator's staff suggests their boss would boost the current $460 billion military budget (not counting $196 billion for the wars) by $150 billion a year. "Some would say this plan is too much and too big," Thompson said in Charleston. "I don't believe that's the case."
There are some clear problems in Thompson's logic, however. For one, tying the nation's defense spending to its economic output makes absolutely no sense; the scale of defense spending should be determined by threat. If America needs to dedicate a third of its economy to the military — as it did during World War II — it will. But if the panoply of threats facing the nation can be handled with a 2% slice, that's also fine. In the event of an economic depression, would the nation allow its military preparedness to suffer? Surely not. What's more, the Army can't attract the full complement of recruits it needs now; expanding it would require billions of dollars in incentives, and force it to accept less-capable youngsters.
But the G.O.P. isn't alone in playing a Pentagon numbers game. Democrats, who have lost to the Republicans on all 40 legislative initiatives designed to curtail the Iraq war, seem to be getting desperate. Democratic members of the Joint Economic Committee issued a report Tuesday predicting that Afghanistan and Iraq will cost far more than the sums appropriated to fight them. "All potential costs," said the 27-page study, total $3.5 trillion. That's $46,400 per American family. (It's also more than $1 trillion higher than a recent projection by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which limited itself to measuring the wars' direct costs and interest payments on the funds borrowed to fund it.)
Committee Republicans complained that the Democrats' study was "released without any notice or consultation," and they questioned several of the economic calculations used to produce the $3.5 trillion figure. Still, they were unable to rebut the premise that the cost of war goes far beyond those funds appropriated to wage it. Lifetime care for injured troops and upward pressure on oil prices, among other costs, don't show up on the government's bill for combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those numbers may be fuzzy, but they're also real — and Republicans plainly don't like to discuss them.
Whatever their complaints about military spending, some Democrats are doing a fine job of ensuring that it flows into their districts and states. Three Democrats from Connecticut, Rep. Joe Courtney and Sens. Christopher Dodd and Joseph Lieberman, prevailed Tuesday in adding $588 million to the Navy's 2008 budget for submarines — built in Connecticut.
"This bill is a vote of confidence in the workers of Connecticut who make the equipment that our military depends on to keep our nation safe," Dodd said. "The additional submarine will fortify Connecticut jobs, and will make the entire country safer," Lieberman added. Courtney, the local congressman in the submarine-building town of Groton, concurred. "We have set a new expedited pace in delivering the most advanced ship to our nation's naval fleet, which will secure our defense jobs in Connecticut," he said. And the legislators from Connecticut are not going to sit on their laurels. Added Courtney, "The next step is to continue discussions for increasing design work on the next-generation submarine." (To stimulate demand for new submarines, the Navy has been known to prematurely retire older submarines.)
The Navy's demand for new submarines is hardly atypical. The Army wants $162 billion for a new fleet of ground vehicles known as the Future Combat Systems. And, not to be shortchanged, the Air Force wants $65 billion to build 184 of its F-22 fighters, designed to prevail in dogfights against Soviet aircraft. That's despite the fact that plane-on-plane aerial combat has followed the Soviet Union into the dustbin of history.
The Citadel has certainly heard the counter-argument: "Every service and every constituency of our military must be willing to sacrifice some of their own pet projects. Our war on terror cannot be used to justify obsolete bases, obsolete programs, or obsolete weapons systems. Every dollar of defense spending must meet a single test: it must help us build the decisive power we will need to win the wars of the future." That was President Bush speaking at the Citadel, three months after 9/11.
In the six years since, however, President Bush has continued, with bipartisan congressional help, to pump hundreds of billions of dollars into obsolete weapons systems. At the same time, the U.S. has deployed inadequate numbers of troops on the ground, lacking basic body armor and vehicles designed to thwart roadside bombs. The wars of the future are not going to be fought tank-on-tank, sub-on-ship, or in glorious dogfights high in the sky. But so long as both parties see the Pentagon as a jobs program to build weapons for wars that will not happen, the nation will continue to bear the burden of politicians boosting military spending rather than retooling it for the 21st Century.
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