My Account
Small Font Large Font
Who Now Loathes the Military?
Congressional Republicans claim to be pro-defense. Do they mean it?

But a further cut, one that went generally unremarked upon in the uproar surrounding the F-22's demise, most plainly revealed the emptiness of congressional rhetoric. For a decade and a half, the United States has expended billions of dollars on the development of a missile defense program. And, for a decade and a half, Republicans have clamored for the deployment of such a system. So when President Clinton finally conceded the need for a missile shield -- and only days after the Army's Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system was tested successfully -- how did House Republicans react? By deleting the funds the administration requested for THAAD's engineering and manufacture. Which missile defense program Congress ought to promote is, to be sure, a question with ample room for disagreement. But the cause of rational discussion was hardly furthered when congressional Republicans chose to expend those funds on items like unrequested helicopters for the National Guard and bases the Pentagon had implored them to shut.


So what animates this new generation of Republicans? At the simplest level, the explanation is fairly straightforward: In their telling, they were elected with a mandate to curtail the budget deficit, federal expenditures, and, more broadly, the government itself. "I'm a hawk," Newt Gingrich explained in 1995, "but I'm a cheap hawk." As for the former speaker's disciples, junior Republicans have indeed been revealed as cheap, though they could hardly be described as hawks.


Another reason for the Republican reversal on defense is politics. Today, with the exception of a few Southern states that host a disproportionately large number of military bases, the defense budget claims virtually no political constituency. And the same political currents that have siphoned funds out of the defense budget have equally distorted its substance. Responding to electoral rather than strategic imperatives, congressional Republicans routinely expend scarce defense dollars on schemes of dubious strategic worth, including civilian projects, obsolete production lines, and unneeded bases. And when they do attend to military requirements, they habitually do so as if the armed services comprised simply another GOP voting bloc -- attaching more importance to the crisis in military day care than to matters of weapons acquisition and modernization.


But the demise of the Republican commitment to the aim of an adequately funded military involves more than dollars and cents. It is also a matter of ideology and, specifically, a manifestation of two creeds that have lately distinguished the Republican style of governance; namely, anti-statism and non-interventionism.


As to the first of these, though denigration of the federal government has long been a staple in many Republican quarters, it was until recently a selective denigration, with institutions like the military and federal law-enforcement exempted as legitimate agencies of authority. But if the GOP means to excoriate federal spending and heavy-handed federal agencies, Republicans of a libertarian bent now argue, why exempt the most expensive and authoritarian of them all? "I don't think it's fair for Republicans to sit and criticize Commerce, the Department of Education and other agencies and, at the same time, give defense what they need because 'I want to go home to the veterans and give my Memorial Day Speech,'" Rep. Mark Foley admonished his colleagues. Or as freshman congressman Doug Ose put it (echoing Jack Kemp's charge that Kosovo was an "international Waco"): "Those are my colleagues' and my tax dollars being used [by the armed forces] . . . to destroy day care centers, schools, churches and the like."


To provide a platform for such voices, in 1996 Foley and former Rep. Mark Neumann formed the Republican Defense Working Group, an alliance whose objective is a lasting reduction in the level of defense expenditures, and whose members have repeatedly challenged military operations and new weapons systems, and demanded an immediate freeze in defense spending. Supporters of those ends have so far succeeded only in derailing proposals to boost the military budget. Demography, however, is on their side: As Republicans elected during the Cold War retire and their junior ranks -- few of whose members have had extensive contact with the armed forces -- move into leadership positions, conservative thrift may well supplant liberal anti-militarism as the chief obstacle to an adequate level of defense expenditure.

MORE FROM THIS ISSUE
Read More