This week has been dubbed "national security week" by the White House, as President Bush visits military installations in three states. When the events were planned, Bush's team no doubt expected a big welcome from the men and women of the armed forces and their families, who had voted overwhelmingly to make Bush our new commander in chief. Bush will undoubtedly get a warm reception from soldiers happy the Clinton era is over. But beneath the surface there will be an air of polite puzzlement, and even distress, as the military wonders how a candidate who had promised that "help is on the way" can have turned into a president willing to stick with Bill Clinton's defense budget.
We're puzzled, too. The defense budget debacle of the past two weeks began when White House spokesman Ari Fleischer proudly announced there would be no new money for the military this year -- leaving us almost as shocked as secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, who was kept in the dark about the decision right up to the last minute. With Dick Cheney in the White House, Colin Powell at the State Department, Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, and a powerful team of defense experts advising Bush for more than two years, it is inconceivable that the new administration really needed a long time to get up to speed on the dire situation facing the U.S. military after eight years of neglect by the Clinton administration. In speech after speech on the campaign trail, Bush and Cheney had sounded the alarm about declining military strength, planes that could not fly, army divisions operating well below acceptable levels of readiness, severe shortages of spare parts, low troop morale, and a defense budget lower as a percentage of GNP than at any time since before Pearl Harbor.
So it was not unreasonable to expect that when the Bush team took over, they would move immediately to start repairing the damage. Sure, they couldn't solve the whole defense budget problem with one massive increase. And, yes, they would want to carry out a thorough strategic review to help them make difficult decisions on major new weapons programs. But this should not have prevented -- it still should not prevent -- the Bush administration from sending up an emergency defense appropriations supplemental for this year, adding the $ 10 billion or so that the Joint Chiefs of Staff say they need to hold the forces together in the near term. And the administration could have moved quickly enough -- it still could -- to put some money in the Fiscal Year 2002 budget, due at the end of this month, to begin addressing other important needs, including research and development for missile defense.
After all, on the stump, Bush had promised to increase the R&D budget by $ 20 billion, beginning not next year but with this year's budget. Rumsfeld and his Pentagon team were, in fact, hard at work drafting a supplemental and preparing for the FY 2002 budget until the word came down from the White House: No new defense money this year.
The administration's explanations for its decision to stiff the military have ranged from the silly to the offensive. In the ridiculous category is the notion that Bush could not ask for more defense money until Rumsfeld completed a top-to-bottom review of American national security strategy. This explanation has been swallowed whole by the Washington press corps, which hasn't bothered to ask why, if this was the reason, no one bothered to tell the secretary of defense. The press also hasn't bothered to ask what Bush's very knowledgeable team of advisers were doing the past eighteen months. In any case, we are skeptical that any review is likely to provide new answers to old, nagging questions.
There is, after all, no escaping the reality that American interests in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere require us to be able to project force to deter and defeat aggression. And there is also no escaping the fact that, as Dick Cheney said repeatedly on the stump, our military is less and less capable of doing so. But even if a Rumsfeld review magically discovered a different set of facts, the current crisis in military readiness would still be there and would still require immediate infusions of money. As John Warner, John McCain, and other senators pointed out in a letter to the president last week, whatever plans the Bush team may have for the future, it is essential that we "fix the force that is currently in place. That force could be called on to act at any time and it must be ready."