Election outcome won't affect Pentagon budget

If Cuba Gooding Jr. of the movie "Jerry Maguire" was working in the Pentagon, he'd be pretty happy regardless of who wins this November. Under his bottom-line criterion of "show me the money," Bush and Gore both come out pretty even, and congressional support for more defense spending remains strong. Although calls by some hawks for massive increases of more than $50 billion every year will hardly be heeded, no conceivable election outcome could derail the steady, if slow, annual increases in defense budgets that began in 1998.

But the bottom line isn't actually the bottom line: How much you spend is less important than what you spend it on. And here is one of the unnoticed ironies of this year's presidential election campaign. On the question of total spending, both candidates represent the status quo of gradual increases. Yet on the fundamental issue of reorganizing the military for 21st-century war, there is no status quo candidate: Both Bush and Gore have embraced the idea of reform- and in office, either man could have a real chance to deliver substantial change.

"There is a surprising consensus among defense intellectuals and military leaders about the outlines of this nascent military transformation," said Loren Thompson, an analyst with the defense-industry-supported Lexington Institute. The "transformation" in question is from the Industrial Age to the Information Age; from reliance on heavy metal-massive barrages, thick armor and bureaucratic chains of command-to microchips-smart weapons, stealth and computer networks. The reform enthusiasts argue that the result will be a force that is deadlier, more agile, and far easier to deploy to distant battlefields. And after years of laboring in the wilderness of academia or the bowels of the Pentagon bureaucracy, those enthusiasts, come January, might actually be in the White House, regardless who wins.

It wasn't inevitable that it would work out this way. Pork barrel politics in the Capitol, and military conservatism in the Pentagon, have slowed reform for years, and there is no political percentage in taking on entrenched interests over such an arcane, complex issue. But a group of defense intellectuals has coalesced around a receptive George W. Bush. So instead of preaching safely to the strong-defense choir, Bush, while at The Citadel military college in September 1999 to deliver his first major policy address, took time to lament: "Our military is still organized ... for Industrial Age operations, rather than for Information Age battles."

Since then, Bush has shifted his rhetoric to the traditional Republican mantra that Clinton has weakened the military, and Bush has tapped as his running mate Dick Cheney, a former Defense Secretary considered to be skeptical of the "transformation" arguments: "He's much more a status quo kind of guy," said Tom Donnelly of the Project for a New American Century. Nevertheless, the radicals and their ideas remain.

The Gore camp, meanwhile, played defense on defense, echoing some of Bush's reform ideas while calling others too radical. But then came Lieberman. For quite unrelated reasons, Gore happened to choose as his running mate the Senate's strongest advocate of military transformation.

"I don't think he changes the campaign, because then you would have to be critical of the Clinton administration [for its slow progress], but I do think he does change it substantially after the election," said former Pentagon official Lawrence J. Korb. As a leading member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Lieberman has pushed the Pentagon to experiment more boldly, and he demonstrates a real grasp of and passion for the details of military reform. In contrast to the well-staffed cadre of defense intellectuals around Bush, Lieberman is a cadre of one-but he would be at the heart of a Gore administration. So while real defense reform will always be an uphill battle, both Gore and Bush would give it a fighting chance.

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