Feast or Famine Defense Cycles

Article excerpt

SOME academics would consider it an insult to have their writings likened to journalism. But Murray Weidenbaum's latest book, "Small Wars, Big Defense," a look at the current state of the United States military and defense industry, does have the feel of a lengthy newspaper series or a long magazine article. It is written clearly. There are plenty of quotes from a multitude of sources (although, contrary to journalistic style, these are footnoted). And each chapter is laden with facts and analysis, as well as a layer of opinion that would be suitable for an op-ed page article in a newspaper.

Weidenbaum, an economics professor at Washington University, St. Louis, writes a monthly economics column for this newspaper. So perhaps he won't mind the journalistic comparison when it is meant as a compliment.

But Weidenbaum has the disadvantage of a book deadline. The book is months out of date: It often refers to the Soviet Union, whereas most journalists now write of the "former Soviet Union," or Russia, or some other republic. However, the breakup of the Soviet Union doesn't make much difference to the book's basic purpose - to provide background and suggestions for what the United States should do to its military establishment as a result of the dramatic drop in the military threat with the end of the cold war.

Some say the breakup of the Soviet Union makes possible even greater shrinkage of the defense forces. Others see a greater risk of military clashes.

Weidenbaum, who was chairman of President Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers in 1981-82, is a moderate conservative. He advocates a strong national defense, but at a much lower cost. He envisions a minimum role for government in the shift of manpower and other resources out of the military into the civilian economy.

The policy task facing the American people, he writes, "is how to gear down the massive military effort that was under way since the early 1980s, but to do so while maintaining the capability to conduct demanding military operations. Events following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait have made it clear that the United States must continue to be able to respond to rapid and substantial changes in the international environment - including changes for the worse."

Thus the quality of the smaller military force should be maintained, he says. But some planned new weapons systems should be forgone. The cadre necessary to reestablish larger forces, should that be necessary, must be given priority. A high level of military research and development and a viable defense industrial base should be kept. And, he says, renewed attention should be given to counter the threat resulting from proliferation of nuclear and other weapons, especially on the part of third-world nations and terrorist groups.

If he were writing the book today, Weidenbaum probably would have expressed concern about the risks from the former Soviet republics and the nuclear weapons on their territories.

That basic defense philosophy probably won't get much of a quarrel. …