Ask the Candidates: Will They Cut a Bloated 20th-Century Military Budget?

In the arcane world occupied by defense budget analysts, a remarkable development is occurring in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Presidential candidates are talking about cutting Cold War relics from the defense budget, a move that could save tens of billions of tax dollars that are badly needed for schools, renewable energy, international development, and more.

You might think that no candidate, other than Rep. Dennis Kucinich and Sen. Mike Gravel, would dare mention a wasteful weapons system to be axed, for fear of being sledge-hammered with the "weak on defense" canard.

But a handful of prominent Democrats have had the guts to name specific systems that should be cut, and this could set the stage for a debate about defense spending that America has sorely needed since the end of the Cold War.

The issue first bubbled up to the national stage during the June 3 Democratic presidential debate in Manchester, N.H., when Wolf Blitzer followed up on a question from the audience.

Sen. Barack Obama first talked about his support for the troops, but then he said, "There's a difference between the Pentagon budget and the size of the military. So it may be that, for example, there are weapons systems that Dennis [Kucinich] and I would agree are outmoded relics of the Cold War."

Sen. Chris Dodd, when pressed by Blitzer to name a specific weapons program he'd cut, said, "Clearly, we've got systems here -- the F-22 (fighter jet) we're looking at, for instance, other things that ought to be reassessed in terms of whether or not they fit into the 21st-century military needs of our nation." This type of exchange about obscure Pentagon systems turned the heads of defense budget mavens, who probably dismissed it as an anomaly.

But the issue has come up repeatedly on the campaign trail in Iowa and New Hampshire, even among top candidates.

John Edwards, who has been leading the Democratic field in Iowa, for example, will recite a litany of Pentagon programs -- from missile defense and new nuclear bombs to fighter jets and space weapons -- that are unnecessary.

His cuts potentially add up to about $17 billion annually, which, if spent outside the Pentagon, would be more than enough money to provide annual health insurance to the 9 million American kids who lack it, or save 6 million kids each year who die of hunger-related disease in impoverished countries.

Gov. Bill Richardson, who's in the No. 4 position and rising in Iowa, has called for a 10 percent defense-budget cut, including an end to the V-22 Osprey, an airplane-helicopter hybrid and golden goose for defense contractors.

Richardson's 10 percent cut in annual Pentagon spending, which devours half of Congress' discretionary budget each year, translates into $50 billion.

For perspective, with that amount of money, America could increase the federal budget for renewable energy by over 25 times, putting us on a realistic trajectory to cut oil use in half and achieve energy independence in less than a decade.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich and Sen. Mike Gravel would go the farthest among the presidential candidates. Both support the Common Sense Budget Act, introduced by Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., which would transfer $60 billion from the Pentagon budget to other priorities, like schools, healthcare and humanitarian foreign aid. Most of the $60 billion would come from trimming obsolete Cold War systems, and Kucinich frequently illustrates his arguments about skewed federal priorities with examples of Cold War Pentagon spending.

Sen. Joe Biden will also denounce, among other things, waste on the F-22, a plane designed to fight Soviet jets that were never built.

Unfortunately, Democratic favorites Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama talk much like the Republican field. They refuse to name even one specific Cold War weapons system that they'd ax. They both promise a review of the Pentagon budget, for what that's worth. The best Clinton and Obama can do is promise not to build a new generation of nuclear weapons, a pledge that's important but almost completely insignificant in the current budget. As the presidential campaign becomes more intense, Democratic candidates who've already named Cold War systems may go further and call for a serious purge of Cold War waste, in an effort to win the support of Democratic caucus-goers and primary voters who are following this issue in Iowa and New Hampshire, thanks in part to local activists who are pushing the issue on the candidates.

And Clinton and Obama, as the clock ticks and their campaigns fight it out, may feel the pressure to advocate cuts in Cold War weapons as well.

After all, with the Iraq war in a quagmire and the federal budget deep in the red, what do these candidates have to lose by calling for cuts in weapons that are completely useless against modern threats?

They might take heat from defense contractors, but they'd surely be lauded by caucus-goers in Iowa who understand that national security for the 21st century must include a military that doesn't reward waste.

And if candidates can score some political points in Iowa and New Hampshire for advocating defense cuts, maybe they'll find the spine to make the utterly reasonable argument that building weapons to fight the collapsed Soviet Union is senseless.

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