The Common Good
January-February 2001

The Invisible Issue

by Duane Shank | January-February 2001

Military spending cuts still a taboo.

Ten years after the end of the Cold War, as military spending continues to make up about half of the country's annual discretionary budget, talking about cuts remains the ultimate political taboo. During the presidential campaign, both candidates strongly supported the military budget, differing only on how much to increase it.

Gov. Bush proposed a $45 billion increase in the next 10 years, saying that he would "skip a generation" of technology in conventional weapons, be more reluctant to engage in foreign "peacekeeping" operations, while dramatically expanding spending on missile defense. Vice President Gore, on the other hand, pledged a $100 billion increase to continue all current plans for new weapons along with continued development of a missile defense system.

The candidates' arguing over who would spend the most led to a Wall Street Journal article headlined "Defense Stocks Rise on Vows to Increase Military Spending," noting that whatever happened in the presidential election, the military technology industry could claim victory.

Ironically, neither met the escalating demands of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who recently testified to Congress that the current budget of $300 billion per year is $50 billion per year short of what they would like. They argued that developing and purchasing new weapons systems, modernizing existing systems, and conducting missions around the world remain essential.

The deeper questions of mission and strategy are seldom addressed. In a world without a single overpowering adversary, the U.S. military remains structured for a "two-war" strategy—preparing for two major simultaneous regional wars. Former Reagan Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb, in a recent report for Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, noted that this strategy is "widely regarded as wasteful," and argued that the defense budget could be cut by at least 20 percent.

Our current era of rapidly expanding budget surpluses leads to a bipartisan feeding frenzy, with the military first in line. The United States should rather examine spending priorities, concentrate on human development both at home and around the world. Although the term has fallen out of fashion, the "military-industrial complex" is alive and well.

Duane Shank is issues and policy adviser at

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