Among the proposals put forth by President Bush in his budget package, his big, across-the-board tax cut has been the one that has dominated debate in the days since he addressed a joint session of Congress. But another debate is just around the corner, and this might be where the congressional fur will really start to fly.
In his budget speech, Bush laid out his vision for military spending in dollar terms that weren't much different from those in Bill Clinton's last budget. The Bush plan provides for welcome increases in military pay and housing funds, but notable in their absence are billions of additional dollars for military hardware. Those who saw Bush's address on television might have noted the grim faces of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when the president said that "our defense vision will drive our defense budget, not the other way around."
Some to the political left of the president have applauded this seemingly restrained view of military spending, while some in his own party have expressed their surprise and dismay. Both quarters need to realize, though, that the Bush military budget is still very much a work in progress.
The key to understanding this lies in a seemingly rhetorical line from Bush's address in which he touted what he said was his plan's fiscal responsibility: "We should approach our nation's budget as any prudent family would, with a contingency fund for emergencies or additional spending needs. For example, after a strategic review, we may need to increase defense spending. ..."
The president went on to give examples of how farmers or Medicare reform might also need to tap into that so-called contingency fund, but it doesn't seem to be by accident that defense came first. The picture, however, is more complicated than that.
The strategic review Bush referred to is being done under the direction of his secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld -- a "top-down" review of how American military forces are structured and arrayed. For some, the review looks like a fig leaf for what they see as an inevitable upward-projection of the Pentagon's budget. While that could turn out to be the case, you might have to strain your ears to hear any cheering coming from either Congress or the military brass.
The Bush administration has signaled that it wants to move ahead now with the next generation of American fighting machines. It also wants a missile defense shield. The Bush military budget ultimately might come in larger than advertised, but something will have to be sacrificed in the process.
Stories this week that the Marines are looking at alternatives to the problem-plagued V-22 Osprey -- its combination helicopter/fixed-wing aircraft -- might shine a light on just where the Bush administration plans to make those sacrifices. The Osprey is one of a number of expensive weapons systems that could be consigned to the scrap heap in the administration's quest for the weapons of the future. Taken along with the further base closings advocated by Bush, that's a lot of pork for a hungry Congress to give up.
With Clinton administration studies also showing that the military needs to be reconfigured for the post-Cold War era, it seems clear that some sort of fundamental rethinking needs to take place. Maybe, like Nixon's opening of China, a Republican can now accomplish what a Democrat could not.
And speaking of China, that nation recently announced a record increase in its military budget, after more than a decade of focused growth in that area ... yet another factor and challenge to take into account as the administration reviews defense strategy in a changing world.
Dan Rather works for CBS News.
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