Bill’s Defense Binge Mightily Offensive

When you learned to duck and cover in second grade, when you practiced air-raid drills during the Cuban missile crisis, you don’t easily forget the weird combination of terror and excitement. And when the world radically changes in your middle years, well, you become the proverbial old grump, talking about the good old days when 7-year-old children knew exactly how to save themselves from nuclear attack and learned personal responsibility by making sure there was enough canned fruit in the homemade fallout shelter–just in case. But these days, of course, they just don’t make second-grade desks like they used to. Why, they probably couldn’t withstand even a conventional bombardment, never mind a direct hit by a missile containing a nuclear warhead! As for fallout shelters, well, today’s kids probably couldn’t find one if their lives depended on it.

The Cold War has been over for a decade, and now it’s little more than fodder for the History Channel and CNN. But the duck-and-cover crowd appears to be having a hard time making the adjustment. How else to explain the lack of uproar over Bill Clinton’s decision to buy off Southern Republicans by building bombs and ships and warplanes that even the Pentagon doesn’t think we need? The boomers out there keep forgetting that Ronald Reagan killed the Soviet beast. Apparently, they’ve convinced themselves either that we remain just an eyeblink away from Armageddon, or that our boffo economy will collapse without billions of dollars worth of Government defense contracts.

More than a quarter-century ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan reminded us that the world was a dangerous place–he wrote a book with that title just before running for the U.S. Senate. That was back in the days when the United Nations was deciding that Zionism was a form of racism, when various tinpot dictators were counting on America’s post-Vietnam, post-Watergate paralysis, and when the Soviet Union was marching throughout the Third World.

Today, the world remains a dangerous place, but the dangers have changed, and so have the identities of those who pose them. Those nasty Russians who drove us under our desks a lifetime ago are now asking us to fix the computers that control their nuclear arsenal. (It turns out that the Russians–you know, the folks who gave us Sputnik–only now are giving some thought to the millennium bug. Apparently, some leaders in the Russian military think that if their computers turn to 1900 instead of 2000 next Jan. 1, they’ll figure that Czar Nicholas II finally has ordered an attack on his wife’s grandmother, Queen Victoria.) If you told a class of second-graders in 1963 that one day America would help fix the computers that control Russia’s nuclear weapons, they’d figure that your canned fruit had fermented.

It would seem to follow that the methods of combating our new dangers ought to change, too. But they haven’t. The President has proposed increasing military spending by $110 billion. That’s a fair amount of cash, even accounting for all the expensive hardware that’s being used up over the skies of Iraq.

The President’s defenders, and they are an odd crew on this issue, remind us that our economy and culture may be triumphant but the world still has plenty of evildoers, and we must build airplanes and aircraft carriers to ward them off. To hear some of these hawks speak, you half-expect them to start strapping on civil defense gear from four decades ago. If we don’t build that very expensive anti-missile defense system, they say, well, before you know it some amoral strongman will be tossing nukes into our backyards. And what do we have to defend our children with? Just some shoddy second-grade desktops built for mere peace and prosperity.

What ought to be plain is that instead of embarking on a long twilight struggle against a rival superpower, we should be preparing for low-intensity conflict in which information, not throw weights–whatever they are (Dan Quayle wasn’t entirely clear on the subject a few years ago)–is the measure of a well-stocked arsenal.

All those nifty Bradley Fighting Vehicles, which no doubt employ many thousands of people and bring great riches to those who know how to make fighting vehicles, are terrific in getting troops across hostile terrain, but they aren’t much good in stopping rental trucks loaded with explosives from crossing the Hudson River. That’s when information is our only bodyguard.

Bill Clinton, the draft-evading boomer who can snap a mean salute but lacks the confidence to stand up to the defense lobby, is intent on fighting the war of his youth, that one being of the cold variety. Cynics on the left enjoy retelling the old joke about military intelligence, but history is a good deal more respectful–witness the splendid achievements of the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. If we want a military for the 21st century, we’d spend less on hardware and more on software.

Apparently, it will take a boomer of sterner stuff, perhaps with a medal or two, to figure this out.

Bill’s Defense Binge Mightily Offensive