Talking About Defense: Bush versus Levin

The last time a Republican President tried to change the American military in a big way, a rambunctious Senator attacked the plan as "a shambles." Twenty years later, it is deja vu all over again, except that the new commander in chief, George W. Bush, is weaker, and the old attacker, Carl Levin, D-Mich., is stronger-by virtue of becoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Stand by for the case of Bush vs. Levin in the court of public opinion, with the key question being how best to provide for the common defense.

Recall that in 1980, Republican Ronald Reagan carried 44 states, with 489 electoral votes, in winning the presidency. He could fairly claim a mandate in cowing Congress into essentially putting the Pentagon on speed, including a big shot of money and resurrection of the B-1 bomber that President Carter had canceled. It didn't hurt, either, that Reagan in his first year had a Senate controlled by Republicans, 53 to 47, and that Republicans had gained 33 seats in the House in 1980.

Contrast all that with Bush winning last year with less than a majority of the popular vote, and then losing Republican control of the Senate in late May. Even when Levin was a junior member of his chamber and of Armed Services in 1981, he not only generalized that the strategic part of Reagan's defense program was a shambles, but he probed deeply into specific parts of the plan, notably the B-1 bomber and the proposed national missile defense.

Levin has gained respect-and influence-during the past two decades by proving to be a tough cross-examiner who can also lighten up to make his point. He is still remembered in this town of short memories for suggesting that 50 B-1 bombers be built-so that each state could have one as a monument.

Levin, who will be 67 on June 28, hasn't lost his touch. He may dress somewhat better than he did in 1982, when the Columbia Journalism Review called him "perhaps the worst dressed man in the Senate," but the pockets of his coat jacket still bulge with a tangle of notes to himself.

He continues to break out the derby for his staff's Christmas party. With the expertise that comes from hearing everything from everybody about national defense for 20 years, and with his combative juices still flowing, Levin looms as the highest congressional hurdle between Bush and his still-to-be-revealed plans for restructuring the military.

There is some good news for Bush in Levin's all but assured ascendancy to the Armed Services chairmanship. For one thing, Levin will be less beholden to the military-industrial complex than is the Republican chairman he will replace, John W. Warner of Virginia, because Levin has less of it in his state. Unlike Warner, Levin will at least consider such radical ideas as building different and more-modest warships, instead of $6 billion aircraft carriers and $2 billion nuclear-powered submarines assembled at Newport News Shipbuilding in Warner's home state. Also, closing surplus military facilities is a cause for Levin, but not for Warner from base-heavy Virginia.

Where Levin will not be receptive is any change that he perceives as hurting the Israelis or helping the Arabs at Israel's expense. He was one of 36 Democrats who voted in 1981 against Reagan's biggest initiative to build a bridge to the Saudis-selling them five highly sophisticated early-warning and control-system aircraft. The deal went through, anyway. For his 1996 re-election campaign, Levin received $319,207 from pro-Israeli organizations and individuals, more than any candidate running for national office, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Levin is likely to be a household name when the debate over deploying a national missile defense heats up. Besides appearing on television talk shows, as chairman he can arrange and star in Armed Services Committee hearings on the pros and cons of taking the plunge into missile defense. Levin is in a position to become the great educator.

It would be refreshing to hear that all-too-parochial committee ask why the Bush Administration is so obsessed with knocking down long-range missiles, which might be a threat tomorrow, and not with knocking down long-range bombers, which are a threat today. And what's wrong with letting Philip Coyle, former Pentagon testing director, explain why he believes the military would be smarter to perfect a defense against the here-and-now threat of short-range missiles, such as widely available Russian-made Scuds of Persian Gulf War fame, before going all out to stop long-range ones? "We could learn so much" from the two-step approach, Coyle recently told National Journal.

In a recent breakfast discussion with defense reporters that did not make "news," Levin previewed what Bush will hear when he tries to sell Congress on deploying a national missile defense, whether anybody else in the world likes it or not. "Under the right circumstances-and only under the right circumstances-we ought to deploy it," Levin said. "Those right circumstances include operational effectiveness, cost effectiveness, impact on arms reductions, whether we are more or less secure with such a deployment." He disputed assertions by congressional colleagues that it is now the law of the land to deploy a limited national missile defense. The same law requires the United States to negotiate with Russia to reduce nuclear weapons. "We have two policies, and possible conflict between the two is not resolved in the law," said lawyer Levin.

Bush vs. Levin should be interesting. Go early to get good seats.

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