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Jewish World Review Sept. 25, 2001 / 9 Tishrei, 5762

Charles V. Peņa

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Re-assessing defense spending in the wake of terrorism -- IN the near term, it would appear that Congress and the American public are willing to give President Bush carte blanche with regard to defense spending in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. There is likely to be no opposition to the president's $343.5 billion spending request for the Department of Defense (which includes an additional $18.4 billion to the original request). In fact, this is more likely to be a floor than a ceiling for defense spending.

But in our efforts to show national unity and rally behind Bush to respond to the terrorists, we ought not to assume that spending $343.5 billion on defense makes sense. We need - perhaps now more than ever - a healthy debate on defense spending. This is especially true if the most serious threat is terrorism.

To begin, national missile defense needs to be put in perspective. Heretofore, it had been the priority of the administration's foreign and defense policy. It will now at least have to share center stage. We have to be willing to acknowledge that missile defense would not have done anything to prevent the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We have to realize that ballistic missiles are the least likely weapon of choice for terrorists because their use communicates a known launch point, which provides positive identification of the attacker for retaliation. That said, we must also understand that ballistic missiles from rogue states are indeed a future potential threat and a limited national missile defense system designed to protect the United States against such attacks is a legitimate goal. But the system must first be tested and proved reliable and effective before deployment.

We also need to acknowledge that the current military requirement to wage two wars at the same time against a conventional enemy no longer makes sense (especially against the threat of terrorism) and be willing to reduce our forces accordingly. If the requirement was reduced to one major theater war, we could meet that requirement and realize significant savings. We could reduce the number of active-duty Army divisions by half, active-duty Marine Corps divisions by two-thirds, Air Force fighter wings by nearly one-third, Navy ships by one-third, and carrier battle groups with air wings by one-half. And it is important to underscore that none of these military forces was able to prevent the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and are unlikely to be able to deter any future terrorist attacks. Therefore, indiscriminately spending more on the military will do little to neutralize the terrorist threat to our security.

Reductions in military forces should be accompanied by a more restrained military posture, particularly overseas deployments, many of which are holdovers from the Cold War and have little to do with safeguarding vital U.S. national security interests. For example, the United States continues to station 100,000 troops in Europe as part of NATO even though the threat of invasion by Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces no longer exists. The same situation exists with a similar number of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea and Japan. These obsolete deployments need to be phased out.

In addition to reducing deployments, the United States needs to reassess the use of military force to intervene in a bewildering array of so-called "crises" around the world--Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo--that have nothing to do with protecting national security interests. Indeed, such actions may unnecessarily fan the flames of future terrorist actions. While there is some degree of truth that terrorists (and even other nations) hate the United States for "who we are," we must also realize that their hatred is also a function of "what we do." We cannot and should not change "who we are" as a nation. But we can decide "what we do." Therefore, military intervention should only be used as a last resort when American interests are at stake.

To be sure, military forces will be required as part of our overall strategy for responding to the heinous terrorist acts of September 11. But it does not necessarily follow that we need to spend more on defense. Rather than opening up the floodgates for increased defense spending (some political commentators have called for "hundreds of billions of dollars"), the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon should cause us to focus on prioritizing potential threats and how to better allocate our resources to deal with those threats.

Charles V. Peņa is a senior defense policy analyst at the Cato Institute. Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, Cato Institute