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Politicians, Not Brass, Bloat the Military

January 14, 1988|HARRY G. SUMMERS JR. | Col. Harry G. Summers Jr. is a U.S. News and World Report contributing editor and a former adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff

When it comes to the military, one of the critics' favorite red herrings is that the "brass" have slipped their leash and civilian control of the military is in danger. That was one of the charges laid against former Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger--proof, if it is needed, that the critics more often than not don't know what they're talking about.

In the Constitution, civilian control of the military is guaranteed by making the President--a civilian who is duly elected by the American people--the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. For better or for worse, since World War II successive Presidents have delegated much of that control to a Cabinet officer, the secretary of defense, who also is a civilian. One can argue the wisdom of that abdication of power, but it is ridiculous to claim that it diminishes civilian control of the military.

Even more powerful than the controls exercised by the executive branch are those exercised by members of Congress, for the very existence of the military rests in their hands. By the Constitution, Congress alone has the power to "raise and support armies" and to "provide and maintain a navy." Through its constitutional control over the purse strings, it is Congress that makes the final determination over the size of the military, its arms and equipment and its deployment.

The reason "the whole power of raising armies (is) lodged in the Legislature . . . a popular body, consisting of the representatives of the people, periodically elected," Alexander Hamilton explained in "The Federalist," was so that it could provide "a great and real security against the keeping up of troops without evident necessity."

That's not quite the way things have worked out. If it were, at least half the military bases in the United States would have been closed years ago. And a good portion of the military's weaponry would never have been purchased. Politicians love to lambaste the military on the stump, but attempts to close military bases or to cancel military contracts in their districts can turn even the most pacifist doves into ferocious hawks.

Crossing a congressman can bring big trouble, as the Defense Intelligence Agency found recently when its budget was cut severely because, in my opinion, it refused to break the law (a law that was enacted, of course, by Congress) and fly a congressman's girlfriend around overseas in military aircraft.

But that's small beer. In a forthcoming book, "Wild Blue Yonder," Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington journalist Nick Kotz details how logrolling between the military and Congress weakens our national defenses. In a chapter titled "The Best Bases Politics Can Buy," he shows how decisions concerning such critical aircraft as the B-1 bomber and the C-17 transport are not made on which best serves the strategic needs of the United States. Instead, they are horse trades, in which military bases become the currency for obtaining or rewarding congressional support for pet military projects.

Kotz's account of the pressure groups--politicians, aerospace contractors and military officers--that provoked the controversy over construction of the B-1 and the stealth bombers is particularly fascinating. Ironically, that favorite devil of defense-spending critics--Caspar Weinberger--emerges as the voice of sweet reason. But he, too, finally capitulates to the political realities involved.

To be fair, Congress is caught in a particular bind. It is charged with representing both its constituents and the national interest. But the "national interest" doesn't vote--it is the constituents who determine whether or not congressmen remain in office. During a lecture several years ago at the Army War College, a congressman was asked if he favored a certain military aircraft. "Are you kidding?" he said. "The people that build that airplane sent me to Congress. And one of the reasons they sent me there was to protect their jobs."

Hamilton had the right idea. But there needs to be a better way to carry it off. Congress must change the way it oversees the military to ensure that national defense takes priority over narrow self-interest. Only then can we be sure that for every dollar spent on defense we will get a dollar's worth of security.

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