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Misplaced Priorities

This column was written by Matthew Yglesias.

The spending priorities outlined in the recently released Quadrennial Defense Review and the president's budget proposal indicate that the Bush administration seems to have trouble reading their calendars. Vast sums of money are scheduled to be spent on maintaining America's entire giant arsenal of strategic nuclear weapons. Vaster sums will go to the development of new weapons systems like the F-22 Raptor, the DD(X) Destroyer, and the Virginia-class of submarines.

These are the sorts of things a country would focus its priorities on if it has in mind a national-security agenda focused on what's known as a "peer-competitor," a superpower rival to the United States. It's a budget, in other words, well suited to 1986 when America was still locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union. It's possible that in 2026 or 2036 this sort of thing will become relevant again if China emerges as a serious military rival to the United States. The current year, however, is 2006, and the situation simply doesn't apply.

The F-22 and the Virginia-class submarines were, quite literally, initially devised over a decade ago with the Soviet Union in mind. American planners, quite sensibly, tried to anticipate the next generation of Soviet weaponry and design new systems of our own to counter those weapons. But the Soviet threat vanished a long time ago, the next-generation Russian equipment never materialized. But the American weapons, instead of dying, were merely equipped with a new set of thin rationalizations.

The DD(X) isn't quite as useless. Its shore-bombardment capabilities would be genuinely useful if we had a few on hand. But the ships are ludicrously expensive. Another new kind of boat, the Littoral Combat Ship, is almost as useful and costs just a fraction of a DD(X). The more expensive ship would be justifiable if there were some chance America would find itself engaged in large-scale blue-ocean combat, but there isn't.

The weapons we have right now in 2006 are, as we've seen in Iraq and Afghanistan and before that in Kosovo, more than adequate to subdue any foe we might realistically fight. Problems for the American military occur in entirely different areas. Our capabilities for post-conflict reconstruction and peacekeeping missions remain extremely limited. Even in terms of traditional "find the bad guys and kill them" military operations, the present day is much more likely to require more and better special-operations forces than more and better jet planes. The large demand for infantry troops from the Army and the Marine Corps is putting a large strain on the American military, as is the fact that civil affairs and military-police functions currently reside almost entirely in the Army Reserve. These are the things we need to be investing our money in — more and better-trained manpower, not military hardware that's already the best in the world. No one even seems to seriously dispute these conclusions. The QDR itself is full of entirely appropriate talk of a "long war" against violent Islamic extremism and the present-day salience of asymmetric threats.

The problem isn't really new to the Bush administration or unique to the Republican Party. But you may notice that the basic story here — policy made to benefit well-funded special interests rather than the public good — is curiously similar to all other areas of policymaking in the GOP-run Washington of the 21st century.

There's a golden opportunity here for Democrats, should they choose to take it. The party has been suffering for years — decades, really — from the perception that it can't handle national defense. Democratic leaders seem to have no idea how to change this. Their preference is to try and avoid the subject, and wage the midterms on more favorable topics, like the "culture of corruption" the Republicans have created in the Capitol and its adverse consequences for the country. This strategy may work in 2006, though it's risky to count on it. But it almost certainly won't work for 2008; you just can't win a presidential campaign in a time of war and scary new threats if you can't compete somewhat seriously on the security issue. Corruption alone isn't going to cut it.

The horribly misguided QDR, however, is an opening to widen the scope of the corruption issue that Democrats are comfortable with into the national-security domain where they usually fear to tread. An administration serious about fighting terrorism would devise a defense budget geared to fighting terrorism. That would mean first doing battle with the defense-contractor lobby, something this White House is clearly afraid to do. If Democrats are as serious as they say about defending the country or about cleaning up Washington, they should step up to the plate.

Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect staff writer.

By Matthew Yglesias
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved

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