Most of the media are trying to make the very difficult case that in boosting defense spending President Bush is starving domestic programs. Unfortunately, too few people are questioning the defense budget itself. We're at war, after all, and the military probably needs the money, right? We know we've dropped a lot of bombs, lost a few helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles, and at the very least those will have to be replaced. And we'll probably need some more. So what's an extra $48 billion, more or less, among Americans. YESTERDAY'S WARS Well, here are just a few reasons the increased military spending is questionable. Of the $48 billion increase, only $10 billion is designated for the war on terrorism, and insofar as it represents a blank check for the executive branch it would be prudent to question even that sum. Despite Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's reassurances that this budget reflects broad rethinking, most of the rest – of the "baseline" military budget and of the $38 billion in added spending – is for Cold War-era weapons whose usefulness has been dubious since the fall of the Soviet Union. The increases essentially reflect the gold-plated wish lists Pentagon bureaucrats, defense contractors and armchair warriors have had for years, not an intelligently targeted assortment of weapons, personnel and training to meet the needs that military planners view as essential in light of recent experience in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The appetites of the armchair warriors are especially insatiable. In a recent piece for the New York Post, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol and his war-whooping cohort Robert Kagan were unusually frank about what they think will be needed. This increase is just a down payment on the increases of next year and the year after and the years after that. The war on terror will continue for the foreseeable future, and Americans will just have to be ready to pay and pay and pay. This is all very satisfactory. There was always something a little halfhearted and more than a little contrived about the neocons' effort to justify big-government conservatism by babbling about "national greatness" conservatism, with its need for ambitious projects and edifices. Wars were always the preferred neocon route to greatness. Of course, I expect to see Kristol and Kagan volunteer for service any day now. MISSING THE LESSONS But beefing up all the weapons and personnel systems the keepers of the status quo at the Pentagon hold dear misses the lessons – such as they are – of the war in Afghanistan. Not that I thought it was necessary or necessarily appropriate to fight the war the way that the United States chose – I still think letters of marque and reprisal, as Rep. Ron Paul suggested early on, would be more useful against decentralized bands of terrorists – but there are some strictly military lessons to be learned from the conflict. The war in Afghanistan was won by precision weapons and special forces, with an assist from unmanned aerial vehicles. The United States also chose to deploy and outfit surrogate forces, such as the Northern Alliance bands, which were already in the field against the Taliban regime but benefited from some strategic advice, military assistance and intelligence. All these weapons are relatively cheap. They could be funded easily by closing unneeded bases, reconsidering unnecessary deployments (Europe, South Korea), and eliminating expensive old weapons systems, particularly the trouble-prone and much-criticized Osprey. The F-22, the latest Pentagon effort to develop an "all purpose" aircraft and thereby reap savings – which will almost surely never be realized – rather than building more "stock" airplanes that are quite serviceable, also needs rethinking. COLD WAR THINKING The current Quadrennial Defense Review still calls for structuring U.S. forces to be able to handle two major wars simultaneously. As defense policy analyst Charles V. Pena notes in a recent Cato Institute paper, "That kind of requirement (i.e., fighting two major wars) made no sense in the post-Cold War environment in the absence of the former Soviet threat and makes less sense not for the war on terrorism. If Afghanistan is the 'template' for future military operations, then we should use that template: an Air Force with more emphasis on long-range bombers; an Army with lighter forces designed to fix the enemy in place to be destroyed by airpower; a Navy with less emphasis on continuous forward deployment and carrier-based air power; a Marine Corps designed to be more than just an amphibious landing force." In an era when the threat is from terrorist groups the "two-war" doctrine certainly deserves hard-nosed reassessment. I would also argue that when it comes to intelligence, the United States would benefit from abolishing the CIA and building a new organization from the ground up, designed from the outset to meet the challenges of today. That wouldn't have to mean losing whatever "institutional memory" might be of value. But it would be easier than reforming a creaky institution with altogether too much institutional memory of how to fail. HEALTH OF THE STATE All in all, the military budget reflects the interests of military contractors and the Pentagon old guard more than the changing defense needs of the United States. But the first wartime Bush budget also builds other aspects of the state structure – well beyond the kinds of incursions on civil liberties many analysts have already protested with little effect. It is a sign of how deeply entrenched is the culture of spending, not just in the government itself but among the chattering classes, that so many of the stories about President Bush's budget proposal have focused on "deep cuts," as a Washington Post headline put it, in domestic spending. I've been through the Office of Management and Budget Summary Tables and quite frankly I've had a hard time finding anything that even remotely resembles a deep cut. This is hardly surprising, since the Bush budget calls for overall spending to increase 9 percent from fiscal 2002 to 2003, a period when the Congressional Budget Office forecasts – probably overly optimistically – that the Gross Domestic Product will increase only 4.1 percent.
To be sure, the Post found a highway spending program that will decline by $9 billion from last year since gasoline tax revenues are down. But overall Department of Transportation spending is slated to rise by 19 percent. Only three agencies will see spending decreases. Department of Justice spending will decline by 1 percent, Labor will fall by 7 percent, and the Army Corps of Engineers will see a 10 percent budget cut. Defense spending will increase by 12 percent, Health and Human Services spending will rise 12 percent and the Federal Emergency Management Agency will get a boost of 114 percent. INEFFECTIVE BUT STILL THERE One of the features of the Bush budget that might or might not bode well for the distant future is that fact that it includes designations of "effective" and "ineffective" for certain programs. But hardly any of those judged "ineffective" took serious budget hits and none were zeroed out. So this is a big spending federal budget overall, despite some modest reductions. But to hear the howls from some members of Congress, you would think that the Departments of Agriculture and Energy had been eliminated (finally), or that old people were being lined up and shot. The howls will define the politics inside the Beltway, of course. The smart bet is that instead of being trimmed, this bloated budget will be increased once Congress gets through with it.