The Common Good
September-October 1996

With Smoke and Mirrors

by Michael T. Klare | September-October 1996

The myths behind the Pentagon's billions.

Congress claim to represent different approaches to national governance, they have virtually no disagreements when it comes to setting the Pentagon budget. Key leaders of both parties, including Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, agree that military spending must rise in the years ahead to ensure continued American military supremacy.

In March 1996, when the Republican-dominated Congress was avidly slashing federal aid to the poor, the homeless, and the infirm, Clinton sent to Capitol Hill a six-year Pentagon budget laying out steady increases in military spending. Under the administration's plan, Department of Defense allocations will rise to $276.6 billion by 2002, an increase of 14 percent over fiscal year 1997. If the Republicans maintain their control of Congress (and/or win the presidency), these figures could go even higher.

Underlying this agreement on budget levels is a deeper consensus on the nature of future threats and on the type of forces needed to counter those threats. This consensus was forged in 1993, when Clinton unveiled a new U.S. military blueprint for the post-Cold War era. Known as the "Bottom-Up Review," this blueprint calls for sufficient U.S. forces to fight and win two "major regional conflicts"—that is, Desert Storm-like engagements—"nearly" simultaneously, a force about three-quarters of that supposedly needed to defeat the Soviet Union at the peak of its strength.

The Bottom-Up Review (BUR) also specifies the nature of the enemies we will encounter on these future battlefields: hostile Third World powers equipped with large military forces. Then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin described the anticipated combat capabilities of these future enemies, using figures that reflected the capabilities enjoyed by Iraq prior to 1991. And because the United States may someday have to fight two such adversaries simultaneously, Aspin argued, the combined potential enemy threat is doubled—the fundamental assumption on which the new U.S. military blueprint is purportedly based.

SINCE THE RELEASE of the BUR on September 1, 1993, not one prominent voice has been raised in Congress or the Washington punditocracy to question the validity of this assessment. No one has dared ask publicly if there is, in fact, one—let alone two—potential Third World adversaries that fit this model. Instead, debate (such as it is) swirls around how much might have to be spent to be able to defeat this imagined enemy alliance.

But in reality the Pentagon model has been created with smoke and mirrors. Only one of the so-called rogues—North Korea—possesses forces of the size specified by Aspin, and the North Korean military (equipped, for the most part, with 30-year-old Soviet weaponry) is considered no match for the U.S.-armed South Korean army; as for the other rogue states, none even comes close to the Iraq of 1990 in total military strength. All of these states, moreover, are beset with economic and internal problems that significantly inhibit their capacity to engage in sustained warfare.

This is not to say that the rogues do not pose a threat to local and regional security. Some of these countries have engaged in aggression against their neighbors (either directly or through the support of terrorist organizations), and all have violated the human rights of their citizens.

None of this, however, figures in the calculations underlying the Pentagon budget. A truly objective assessment would surely indicate that ethnic warfare and internal conflict—along with the massive civilian casualties, widespread starvation, and immense refugee flows that invariably accompany such conflicts—pose the greatest contemporary threats to global stability. If these threats are to be overcome, the world community will have to devote far more resources to conflict resolution and peacekeeping. Yet Washington has sought to diminish its support of U.N. peacekeeping while pressing ahead with implementation of the BUR.

If change is to come—and the U.S. public is ever to reap the economic benefits of reduced military spending—we must begin to question the assumptions underlying the prevailing Pentagon blueprint. It is not enough to insist that the defense budget is too big; rather it is necessary to argue that the two-war model is a total fabrication, and that the greatest security threats come from ethnic conflict and humanitarian disasters.

In such an environment, a modest increase in U.S. support for U.N. peacekeeping could be accompanied by a substantial reduction in American military expenditures with no reduction in U.S. security. Unless we can popularize this view, we must expect steady—and largely uncontested—increases in the Pentagon budget.

Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., and author of Rogue and States and Nuclear Outlaws: America's Search for a New Foreign Policy, just out in paperback from Hill and Wang.

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