Cold War Timewarp

For a child of the ’50s who grew up in the ’60s, reading the news this week is weird and disturbingly familiar.

Stories about Russians testing ICBMs, engaging in adventurous activities in the Crimea, and issuing vague threats make me feel like we’re caught in a timewarp. It’s like it’s the Cold War all over again, and the Russkies are even being directed by one of those inexplicable, menacing leaders that Americans love to hate. Vladimir Putin is like this generation’s Nikita Khrushchev. What’s next? People building fallout shelters and making our kids watch Duck and Cover?

When the Berlin Wall fell more than two decades ago, people confidently predicted “the end of history.” Of course, that’s not what happened. A bilateral world splintered and shifted, and now there are many more threats and many more unpredictable leaders who apparently are bent on doing us harm. I wonder whether this little demonstration of naked Russian aggression will cause President Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to revisit their plans to cut defense spending and Cold War weapons programs.

I hope that we don’ return to the unsettling Cold War world, with its doomsday clocks and periodic crises that could blow up into catastrophic confrontation. I hope we also aren’t so smug, however, that we confidently conclude that it just can’t happen. Such conclusions are wishful thinking. There are lots of people out there with lots of territorial ambitions who are willing to run stupid risks to try to achieve them, and we need to recognize that reality and deal with it.

In Defense, Recognizing “Fiscal Reality”; In Domestic Spending, Not So Much

Yesterday Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel unveiled plans to reduce the size of the U.S. military. The plans were motivated, Hagel said, by the need to recognize “the reality of the magnitude of our fiscal challenges.”

Hagel’s plan includes cutting the size of active duty forces, changing pay structures, benefits, and housing allowances, eliminating certain weapons programs, and potentially closing military bases. Obviously, the proposals will need to be carefully considered to ensure that we are fair to the women and men who have served so capably in our military, but I have no problem with the concept of reducing the footprint of our military and modifying its focus. The world has changed since our forces were actively fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan; those changes inevitably will affect our defense planning. If bases or weapons programs are no longer needed, they should be ended, and our focus should be concentrated on the weapons programs and forces we truly need to respond to the threats posed by the current, fractured, dangerous world.

I am struck, however, by the difference between our approach to defense spending and our approach to other parts of the federal budget. The “reality of the magnitude of our fiscal challenges” obviously doesn’t exist just with respect to the military budget, it exists with respect to every dollar spent by the federal government. Where is the careful evaluation of whether other federal programs are no longer needed, as the Pentagon apparently has decided with respect to the U-2 spy plane? If we are willing to cut 80,000 active duty personnel from the military rolls — about 15 percent — why should we hesitate to cut a similar percentage from the non-military federal government payroll? If we are willing to close military bases, why shouldn’t we end federal programs, like those that fund advertisements to use your seat belt, that have long since served their purpose? Of course, there has been no such reevaluation of the true need for the morass of seemingly permanent federal programs and federal employees in the non-defense area.

During his campaigns and during his presidency, President Obama has talked a good game about fiscal prudence, but the actual evidence of his commitment to rational federal spending and deficit control has been lacking. Now his Defense Secretary has recognized the “reality of the magnitude of our fiscal challenges” and has used that reality to justify proposed reductions to the arm of the federal government that protects us from peril. If President Obama doesn’t use the “reality of the magnitude of our fiscal challenges” to make similarly significant reductions in domestic spending, he will lose whatever remaining credibility he may possess on budget control issues.

You can’t cut the jobs of soldiers and sailors, but continue to spend like a drunken sailor on every federal program we’ve inherited from the New Deal onward.