Guns or Budget? Clinton's Options

In the next five years, according to current plans, the Pentagon will spend nearly $1.5 trillion. Candidate Clinton proposed cuts of only $100 billion

President Bill Clinton listens to U.S. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin (L) as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell tries to clear the media out of the way during a visit to the Pentagon, Washington D.C., April 8th, 1993 Credit: LUKE FRAZZA/AFP/Getty

The myopia of conventional wisdom is ever enduring. With some backhanded encouragement from Clinton insiders, the Washington press pumped up the always-present deficit monster into the new administration's first crisis. The story line was tired and familiar – Surprise! The deficit is bigger than predicted – but the newsies still attempted an air of suspense. Must the young president abandon his promise to cut the deficit in half by 1996? And if not, whose taxes would he hike? And whose programs would he whack?

Various fiscal experts and elite opinion mongers promptly came forward to offer their standard solutions – a gasoline tax or Social Security cut or one of numerous other proposals injurious to the broad ranks of citizens. Yet none of them even mentioned the biggest spending monster in the federal labyrinth: the military.

As Bill Clinton wrestles with his hard budget choices, maybe he will notice that the Pentagon is still there, still gobbling up an incredible amount of money. In the next five years, according to current plans, the Defense Department will consume nearly $1.5 trillion. The lately departed George Bush proposed cutting only $43 billion from that total. Clinton topped that easily as a candidate, though he advocated only a "moderate reduction" of $100 billion, a cumulative saving of a mere seven percent. Peace, it seems, is going to be almost as expensive as war.

The collapse of the Soviet Union provides Clinton with a historic opening to demobilize and to build a new international system for peacekeeping that depends upon collaborative diplomacy, not a bloated U.S. arsenal. After all, the permanently out-of-control deficit originated in Ronald Reagan's commitment to doubling the Pentagon's budget while simultaneously cutting taxes. If military spending were shrunk back to 1980 levels – $134 billion a year, as opposed to the $274 billion budgeted for this year – the long struggle to restore fiscal order would be more than halfway done.

Unfortunately, Clinton is not as yet inclined in that direction. For one thing, as a candidate he promised a long list of expensive goodies to defense workers and weapons manufacturers. Among other projects, he made commitments to build 120 McDonnell Douglas C-17 transport planes to enhance "mobile projection forces" ($35 billion); to go forward with General Dynamics' Seawolf submarines ($4 billion or $5 billion more), even though these nuke-armed subs are now utterly redundant; and to develop Bell-Boeing's vertical liftoff V-22 ($2 billion).

As expensive as these promises are, defense spending will be driven even more by Clinton's own rhetoric. On the campaign trail Clinton declared that since the United States is no longer preoccupied with defending Western Europe against Soviet invasion, it should now prepare "to project power whenever and wherever our national interests are threatened." That will require, he added, more hardware for "rapid deployment forces."

Clinton went on to describe "our national interest" in such fuzzy terms that it could be invoked for almost any local or regional conflict, from Somalia to Bosnia, Cuba to China. Beyond self-defense, he said, U.S. force should be applied to "promoting democracy," to discipline other governments that mistreat their own citizens or abet "illegal conduct beyond their borders."

Even more comforting to the military-industrial complex than Clinton's rhetoric and weapon commitments are his two key defense appointments – Congressman Les Aspin to run the Pentagon and lawyer-lobbyist R. James Woolsey to run the CIA.

Woolsey is a neoconservative defense expert who served ambidextrously in both the Carter and Reagan administrations. He sits on the board of Martin-Marietta, a defense manufacturer that recently acquired General Electric's defense-aerospace division and hopes to become one of the surviving giants in the shrinking arms industry. Aspin, as House Armed Services chairman, argued for Cold War strategies slightly more moderate than Reagan's – a slimmed-down Star Wars, a midget-sized MX missile – but he still led the cheers for the massive buildup.

Both Aspin and Woolsey possess serious, supple intellects (and nimble political instincts), and both excel at war-game policy debates, the bread and butter of the national-security state. Though these elite exercises are conducted in bloodless hyper-rationality, they yield an aura of constant danger as well as imaginative reasons to build more weapons.

Aspin's brisk talk about post-Cold War national security is eerily reminiscent of the inflated presumptions that governed military thinking in the Sixties. Aspin was, in fact, a whiz kid in the Pentagon then, when Defense Secretary Robert McNamara enshrined zero-based budgeting and supposedly disinterested policy analysis in an effort to make defense policy "rational." The ethos of hardheaded management led instead to the bloody mire of Vietnam.

Woolsey and Aspin's first task is to find an enemy, now that the commies are gone. The two speak of the former Soviet Union with a rueful nostalgia that would have been seen as dangerously softheaded during the Cold War. Moscow, it turns out, was an enemy you could count on.

The Soviets were "predictable" militarily, Aspin explains. "They wanted to win without war," says Woolsey. As a result, U.S. planning was a relatively straightforward exercise of matching the red pieces on the global chessboard – alliance for alliance, division for division, nuke for nuke. Now the enemy could be, well, almost anywhere – "murkier, more ambiguous and more fluid," Aspin observes. "The threats will be harder to characterize and pin down than during the Cold War."

"We may well find – and I'm sorry to close on a somber note – that the last 45 years have been easy," said Woolsey, ending an address to the World Affairs Council last December. In his speech he drew a scary picture of "very virulent" nationalism stirring on many continents, aided by the spread of high-tech missiles and weapons of mass destruction. These movements, he explained, are uninhibited by the basic Western values that even Marxist rulers in the Kremlin shared with their adversaries.

"Although we have slain the single dragon of Soviet imperialism," Woolsey said, "there are still lots of very large poisonous snakes. And as they say in Hollywood, it's a jungle out there. Further, some of these snakes will soon be able to strike from a distance."

As a longtime player in defense debate, Aspin has attempted to describe what these potential enemies might look like. While defense spending will inevitably shrink, Aspin argues in a policy paper he issued last year, it is crucial to base the cuts on a rational conception of national-security needs, not simply to subtract from the top. To that end, in his paper, "An Approach to Sizing American Conventional Forces for the Post-Soviet Era," he presents a dry-eyed exercise in "threat-based force planning" – attempting to construct a "bottom-up" model for how policy makers should plot out future defense budgets.

"Regional aggressors," Aspin says, will be the "main threat drivers." The Soviet military has already shrunk from 4 million to 2 million troops, and only 23 percent of the new recruits showed up for the draft call in the fall of 1991 – "not a promising basis for aggression," he notes.

Other kinds of engagements – combating terrorism (the Libya bombing) or providing humanitarian relief (Somalia) or deposing a crooked dictator (the Panama invasion) – should remain in the U.S. repertoire, Aspin asserts, though he acknowledges that none of these really requires that much manpower. What about using the troops and planes to block illegal drug traffic? "Until the drug war shows more promise of victory," Aspin says, "the anti-drug effort will not be a convincing force builder for Americans."

What about stopping nuclear proliferation? Yes, he writes, to prevent a Third World nation from developing nuclear weapons, "it may be necessary to insert forces on the ground to ensure that the right installations have been located and to render them harmless before they are destroyed or removed. Even so, the forces required for such a task are small compared to those required to defeat a regional power's main military forces."

That leaves "regional aggressors," and according to Aspin, the model enemy of the future looks a lot like Iraq. Those critics who said the Gulf War was a dress rehearsal designed to try out a new purpose for the U.S. military may feel their cynicism confirmed by Aspin's analysis.

Aspin surveys the world for potential "aggressor" nations and can find only six others – Iran, Syria, Libya, North Korea, Cuba and China. China? Aspin is not predicting war with China, merely looking for opponents who could put up a worthwhile fight. To measure their muscle, Aspin constructs an Iraq Equivalent score for each nation's forces. For example, if Iraq's military might (before we bombed the daylights out of it) is scored as 1, then Syria is .6 in land troops and tanks, .2 in naval forces and .8 in air strength. Not very threatening, it would seem. In fact, except for China, none of these other countries could match Saddam Hussein's prewar arsenal. Cuba is a pitiful .2 on land and in the air. Even China's 2.3 million-man force is "lightly armed and not very modernized," says Aspin.

Nonetheless, Aspin goes on to define a Desert Storm Equivalent as the basic building block for the U.S. force structure – an assemblage of troops, planes and ships sufficient to fight the Gulf War again and win again. He next defines a Panama Equivalent force in case the United States decides to replay Operation Just Cause and remove some Third World dictator by invasion. Then he throws in a third, much smaller block – a Somalia Equivalent – to allow for humanitarian relief expeditions. In addition, he notes, the United States will need a "defense foundation" of strategic nukes, weapons research and development, as well as support units.

Up until now, it sounds as if Aspin is defining a very modest military – maybe half the size of the present one – since clearly there aren't many substantial enemies out there. The Cold War defense budget was always premised on the dubious assumption that World War III was imminent – a global conflict ignited by a Soviet invasion of Western Europe – and half of all defense spending was devoted to NATO. It is now just about impossible to imagine such an event anywhere in the world. Aspin's "regional aggressors" are small change by comparison. Not to worry.

It's at this point in "threat based" planning that the real fun begins. Policy makers, Aspin explains, will get to play around with the building blocks he's described to design an armed forces to meet a variety of options. Would the government like to be able to fight one Desert Storm Equivalent while simultaneously sending a Somalia Equivalent somewhere else in the world? That requires the troop strength Aspin lays out in Option A. It would save a lot of money – $208 billion over five years, twice the cut Clinton has proposed.

But what if the United States is fighting one Desert Storm Equivalent in the Middle East when another Desert Storm Equivalent breaks out in Korea or Eastern Europe? In the tradition of Cold War euphemisms, Aspin refers to these as "regional contingencies." For only $50 billion more, Option B would let the United States fight two Desert Storms at once, plus do a Somalia on the side.

Option C would be even better. By adding additional land and air forces to allow the rotation of troops, the United States could not only fight two Desert Storms at once, but the "deployment could be sustained for an extended period." This capability, Aspin notes, may appeal to those dovish types who wish to impose military embargoes on outlaw nations without actually doing any fighting. Plus, Option C troop strength would be sufficient to do a Panama simultaneously. Naturally, Option C would cost more – about the same as candidate Clinton's proposed budget.

Option D is even "more robust." We could fight two Desert Storms, do one Panama and perform two Somalias – all at the same time. Of course, this won't be cheap. The budget Option D requires is just about what the defense budget is now.

Aspin himself is careful not to choose among the four options, though it is possible to infer from his recent positions that he's probably closest to Option C. So is Clinton, judging from his campaign rhetoric.

This building-block approach, seemingly so rational, clearly echoes the McNamara era. Back then, the military claimed to be prepared to fight "two and a half wars" anywhere in the world. That was before Vietnam destroyed such arrogant calculations. War is messier than war-gaming.

In fairness to Aspin, he approaches the subject without the saber-rattling histrionics other experts employ. Still, the antiseptic logic of "threat-based force planning" can lead to open-ended mobilization, since there are always dangerous characters operating somewhere and an unlimited supply of experts to suggest scenarios of how all the bad things might happen at once. Thus, a few tin-pot dictators scattered around the globe can easily be inflated to justify defense requirements of world-war proportions.

In some ways more disturbing than Aspin's budget projections are his facile assumptions about military actions in the post-Soviet era. He not only claims that the lessons of Vietnam have been eclipsed by those of Desert Storm, but he chides military leaders like General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, for their timidity in supporting interventions in such conflicts as the Serbo-Croatian civil war.

For two decades, the military's top officers have been a crucial bulwark against ill-conceived foreign adventures. Because they (and the public) remembered the humiliation of Vietnam, they resisted casual engagements that did not promise a quick, sure victory or an easy, non-humiliating exit.

As House Armed Services chairman, Aspin continually advised this "all-or-nothing school," as he named it, to overcome their reluctance. If the generals and admirals want big budgets, he warned, they must be ready to fight more frequently. "People may not be willing to pay $250 billion or even $200 billion a year for a military that is not very useful," he said last year. "It may be that to maintain a military for extreme contingencies, it would be necessary to show that it is useful for lesser contingencies, too."

Aspin puts himself, by contrast, in the "limited objectives school" – that is, willing to use armed forces for political or diplomatic objectives far distant from any genuine threat to the United States. "Lesser contingencies," he suggests in his policy paper, can mean limited strikes or deployments to punish a wayward nation, to deter bad behavior in the future or to send a signal to some potential adversary.

This selective use of power was made plausible for Aspin by the smart-bomb wizardry displayed in the Gulf War. "We can target communication nodes, power grids and command-and-control assets," Aspin explains. "These things are the kinds of targets that national leadership and military commands hold dear... Technological developments have improved our ability to achieve compellance." ('Compellence' – another policy euphemism – means bombing a foreign government into submission.) Clinton seems to agree – he began his presidency by continuing the selective bombing of Iraq.

In a sense, the vision of the "electronic battlefield" first articulated by planners back in the Sixties has become a reality for the new defense secretary. His leading example of where it might be used is the Serbo-Croatian civil war.

"The breakup of the Eastern Bloc has opened up the possibility of ethnic or nationalist conflict in many parts of the world," Aspin says. "Therefore, a signal should be sent to deter such behavior. Contrary to the all-or-nothing school, the limited-objectives school wants to use military force in either or both cases of Bosnia and Iraq to get the desired results."

'Sending a signal' was a familiar policy rationale back in the Sixties, too. The measured bombing of North Vietnam was supposed to persuade Ho Chi Minh to accept a diplomatic settlement to end his 30-year war for independence. Each time Ho declined to be so reasonable, the United States was compelled to escalate further – or else lose face as a superpower. Aspin claims open-ended escalation is no longer a danger, now that the Cold War is over. "The superpower rivalry is gone," he says. "The stakes do not automatically go up every time the United States decides to use force."

This is a most dubious premise, one that might be swiftly tested if the Clinton administration decides to send a 'signal' to the Serbs by bombing them. The Serbs are pursuing a blood vengeance that dates back centuries; even Hitler could not defeat Serb resistance in World War II, though the Nazis slaughtered hundreds of thousands of them. Will these same people respond to a 'signal' sent by smart bombs?

Suppose they don't. What would Clinton do then? Shrugging his shoulders and walking away from the continuing bloodshed would be most difficult. His manhood as commander-in-chief would be on the line; America's newly proclaimed status as global peacekeeper would be in doubt. Not escalating would be decried as "wimping out" – and Clinton's political standing could be destroyed.

None of these budget and strategy questions has yet been resolved by the Clinton administration, but the activist premises advanced by the new defense secretary are not reassuring, especially since he chooses as his models the various Reagan-Bush interventions.

Just as Bush proclaimed, the "new world order" is emerging. Only, it will be defined by Democrats. As Earl Ravenal, a conservative scholar at Georgetown University, has warned: "A Bush-type world order requires a Bush-sized defense budget."