The Washington Times

I find myself among the puzzled on the question of the Bush administration’s approach to the defense budget. Surely, the expectation created by the campaign was that a Bush administration would act rapidly to find more money for the military. The slogan was simple and effective: “Help is on the way.”

Newly installed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld suggested in early congressional testimony that the administration would be seeking a hefty supplemental defense appropriation for this fiscal year. But shortly thereafter, the White House shot the idea down, and we learned instead that any major program changes would await the sweeping review of programs Mr. Rumsfeld had commissioned. As for the interim, President Bush has placed virtually all the emphasis on “quality of life” issues in the armed services. So the supplemental appropriation now under discussion doesn’t even take up the thorny questions about readiness, claimed shortages of certain kinds of munitions and insufficient resources for training. Also unaddressed are the even larger questions about the next generation of weapons systems – subsumed under the review Mr. Rumsfeld has under way.

Needless to say, all of this has provided plenty of targets for Mr. Bush’s critics to shoot at, and they, for one, are not even close to running out of ammunition. Was all the bluster of the campaign trail really just empty partisan rhetoric? Does the administration really know what it wants, or is the apparent drift we on the outside perceive actually a product of bureaucratic struggles within? The Rumsfeld review was initially accorded a high degree of seriousness of purpose. But now, some are asking whether it might not belong to the time-honored tradition of reviews designed either to ratify the status quo or to put off any day of reckoning into the hazy future. And into the mix now comes the change of control of the Senate: Whatever he decides, Mr. Bush can hardly expect as warm a legislative welcome.

Tom Donnelly, writing in the Weekly Standard this week, argues that Mr. Bush may already have blown his chance to address the military’s problems. He makes a serious case that swifter action might have yielded more in terms of both correcting short-term funding problems and making a start at the necessary “transformation” of the military into a 21st century fighting force. This is quite possible, but it’s not the only possibility. There are ways in which the current political dynamic might yet work to favor the reform-minded. A large part of what happens in Washington can fairly be summarized, I think, as a process in which politics ebbs and flows around vast inertial momentum. For years now, consensus has been gathering around the need to reverse course following the post-Cold War military drawdown. Washington has been expecting a significant increase in defense spending, and, at least to some degree, the introduction of some of the ideas that have gathered under the rubric of “transformation” – lighter, more mobile and technologically advanced forces from which the ghost of the Fulda Gap tank battle with the Soviet Union has been exorcised once and for all. Inertial momentum of this sort necessarily has a bipartisan or nonpartisan or transpartisan character. If one were high-minded, one might say this is a product of the parties coming together, their judgment coalescing around a single set of issues and answers. If one were cynical, one might say that this condition arises when one party realizes it has to give ground to the issues framed and promoted by the other or risk political damage. Both might in fact be true. Thus the Gore campaign called for substantial defense increases – bigger increases than Mr. Bush has. It does, of course, matter that the Senate has changed hands. But I think it is likely entirely wrong to think that the changeover does much to disturb the inertial momentum, let alone reverse it. Given this momentum, one might well have expected the administration to floor the accelerator to take advantage of it. Something very like that happened in relation to the inertial momentum for a tax cut (recall that Mr.Gore, here again, was campaigning on one). Two possible reasons the administration held back (besides the confusion scenario discussed above): first, because there was a higher priority, namely, the tax cut itself, and managing both would have divided the attention of the White House. Anybody who thinks any White House can easily prosecute a two-war strategy should look at the record of attempts along those lines. Dealing with two major issues simultaneously from the bully pulpit does not usually translate into the creation of two high-profile issues, but less than one.

Second, inertial momentum plus acceleration equals runaway train. Or at least it can. Cringing at the prospect of what a defense supplemental appropriation bill might have metastasized into earlier this year, one well-placed Hill staffer cracked to me, “It might even have had some money for defense in it.”

Instead the Bush administration, for whatever reason, tapped the brakes. This caused those running with the inertial momentum to lurch forward – before catching their balance somewhere out front of the administration. Now, maybe this was all an accident. But I think the preponderance of external pressure on the administration now will be to do more on defense, not less. That’s a political environment favorable to action – provided the administration really means to act.