Indefensible

“The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”

—President Dwight D. Eisenhower

BUILDUPS USUALLY MARCH APACE WITH WARS; THE WAR OVER, MILITARY spending tapers off. The defense buildup we have just had in this country was different. It did not begin in war; it began in fear, in the wake of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and also in politics, in the promises that Ronald Reagan made in the 1980 presidential campaign. “America is back,” Reagan said on the eve of the 1984 campaign, and what had brought it back, he claimed, was a surge in defense spending that would ultimately total $2.3 trillion. While America was coming back, the Soviets were retreating from Afghanistan, peace or something like it was breaking out in war-torn places subject to Soviet influence, and the United States and the Soviet Union were signing an arms-reduction treaty that was highly favorable to the United States. Thus, although we did not have to endure a war to get it, the international situation in 1989 offers a heartening simulacrum of what happens after a war ends.

However, the political rationale for our defense spending has not changed with the changing world. In the 1988 presidential election, neither party came out for the kind of cuts in the defense budget which the world picture would seem to warrant. George Bush said we were spending just the right amount to keep the pressure on the Soviets for more peace, for a wider peace, for peace on our terms.

Yet that belief is in conflict with Bush’s campaign promise of no new taxes; if the President is to avoid a budget crisis, he will have either to change his views on defense spending and its relation to peace or to break his campaign promise. The prospect that he will change his views—that he will come, for example, to see that peace has a dynamic apart from the sheer level of our spending—has some in the national-security community worried. To them, the budget crisis looks like a vortex out of which America will emerge weaker than it was before Ronald Reagan brought it “back.”

The articles that follow present a different picture. While it is a dark one—of a bankrupt military strategy, of a draining subsidy to NATO to defend against a threat that grows more and more incredible, and of a weapons-procurement system that wastes a third of what it spends—it is also streaked with light. Blessed with a peace we did not have to fight for, we can make the kind of sober recalculation of our national interests and their supporting military strategies which nations usually put off until forced to change by the cruel tutelage of defeat.