DEFENDING AMERICA
David H. Hackworth
February 8, 1994

REFORMING THE MILITARY IS TOO BIG A JOB FOR PERRY

The "help wanted" sign posted at the. Pentagon was torn and tattered before a taker for the top job was finally recruited.

William Perry, the new defense secretary, is the most gun-shy top hand ever to climb into the Pentagon's saddle. Insiders tell me that Perry's arm was twisted into a pretzel before the quiet technocrat "volunteered."

Despite all the perks, power and prestige that come with the turf, others far better qualified – Bobby Inman, Sam Nunn, Warren Rudman -- dodged the shot at being the world's Top Gun. They all understand the Pentagon is a bronco that lots of good men have ridden but none have broken.

Rather, people can be broken by the, Pentagon: James Forrestal, the department's first secretary, committed suicide, probably driven mad by the bruising job of fighting with the tradition-bound, parochial brass.

Money, not defending America, is what causes all the heat. Each service lies, cheats and zaps the others and deceives Congress, the president and the American people to get a bigger slice of the Pentagon pie.

Defense contractors and a lot of lawmakers play the same game. This group of gluttonous vultures says that every dollar taken away from the defense budget weakens America s security. And whenever there's a shortage of dollars, they crank up the fear volume, saying that some new bogeyman is plotting to do America in.

During the Cold War, fear produced trillions of dollars for defense. But now even the brain-dead and paranoid know the Soviet Bear is buried and there's no other serious foe threatening our country. Yet last year President Clinton approved a Pentagon budget of $12 trillion for the next five years, or about $240 billion per year. Russia is now spending less than $50 billion a year, and the rest of the world combined spends less annually on war toys than Super Defender USA.

Clinton plans to spend about 85 percent of the level that was splurged during the Cold War, when, according to the Pentagon and the well-funded intelligence community, the Bear was straining at the leash to hit the United States on all fronts. The Cold War scam gave the military-industrial complex -- a term coined by President Eisenhower just before he left office -- the excuse to grab big, a rationale that's turned into an expensive habit.

The military-industrial complex is a corrupt machine. To fix it requires a strong leader with the guts to take on the powerful retired and serving generals, admirals and civilians who run it. William Perry is not the man to do it. He's not mean enough to reform the largest and costliest bureaucracy in the world. He'll be an experienced handler, but he's tarnished and part of the problem. He'll just serve up more of the same redundancy and duplication that's grown like an old sergeant's belly since 1947.

Only the president can clean up the military-industrial complex. He must attack it with the same energy and focus he's given to the economy, NAFTA and health care. To do this, he will have to take on some influential people, including members of his own party in Congress.

As commander in chief, Clinton can't continue to run scared of the Pentagon brass. He must lock their heels and perhaps sack a lot of top brass who keep him prisoner in the middle of the military's minefield because he never served.

Clinton has got to take charge and stand tall or expect to be steam-rolled for the rest of his term. He must put national security over pork and obsolete defense jobs -- something he hasn't done so far -- or watch every good idea he has to get America up off its knees go down the drain.

It's not mission impossible. A strong president can do it, one who demands that those responsible for the mess put America above their selfish interests. And the American taxpayers, whose pockets just aren't deep enough to support the rip-off any longer, must back the president all the way -- regardless of party.