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President Clinton has a thoroughly bad idea. This is surprising not because it's a bad idea -- he advocates bad ideas for political reasons all the time -- but because this one is the consequence of a failure of wonkology. The problem is, he didn't study it enough.

The turkey in his State of the Union address was the berserk notion that we need to spend $110 billion-plus on the military over the next few years in addition to the $260 billion we spend annually already. Adjusted for inflation, we are already spending as much as we spent on our military 20 years ago, when Jimmy Carter was president and the Soviet Union was a real threat.

Bill Greider has a timely new book out that examines precisely these issues: "Fortress America."

"When the Cold War ended, America did not demobilize, as it had after previous great conflicts," writes Greider. "True, the awesome U.S. military arsenal was reduced in size, but it remains configured and equipped to confront a war of maximum scale, prompted by some large and unknowable threat that no one can yet name.

"The vast industrial structure required to support and supply the armed forces underwent its own shrinkage and consolidation but also continues in place with massive capabilities, still inventing and producing, still imagining a next generation of advanced weaponry that can prevail over this unnamed future enemy. . .

"America remains supremely ready for war. No one in authority dares question this, and the public does not ask: to what end? This book is designed to provoke a much livelier discussion of big questions nearly everyone now wishes to avoid. What exactly is the purpose of Fortress America now that our only serious adversary has evaporated into history? What are the real costs of imagining new foreign dangers simply to sustain the status quo? Above all, can the nation really afford the price of our own inertia?"

One reason the Big Questions have not been asked is because the media, as usual, have fallen down on the job. Scott Shuger, who writes about newspapers for the on-line magazine Slate, did a scathing article for Mother Jones magazine about media coverage of military issues.

Among other causes, Shuger fingers the media's elitism: "Reporters and editors at big newspapers now tend to identify with the upper class. This helps explain why, for example, personal finance coverage is ever expanding while aggressive reporting about corporate misdeeds is not. . . . Reporters and editors downplay (military coverage) because, as a rule, they have never served in the military themselves and have little feel or interest in its activities or its mind-set."

Let me point out that the same is largely true of today's political class. Except for the World War II vets who are congressional lifers, there's practically no one under 60 in Congress who has done military service. The president is our most notorious draft dodger, but you will find that many of those Republican hawks who carry on so about patriotism also managed to avoid serving in Vietnam.

The few who did serve -- Bob Kerrey, John Kerry and John McCain -- are noticeably more willing to take on the military than those who fear being labeled "doves" or something equally awful.

Why are Republicans talking about pursuing Star Wars -- an anti-missile defense system of incredible cost, dubious effectiveness and minimal potential use -- if the greatest threat to our security is anthrax in the New York subways? Why are we designing phenomenally expensive new tanks when the best use we can make of our phenomenally expensive old tanks is sinking them offshore to make fish reefs?

Greider's thesis is that our existing defense institution is too large to maintain, too backward-looking in design and too ambitious in its preparations for future war. "U.S. forces are becoming dysfunctional ... (thus) the steady erosion of superb defense capabilities."

And we are letting this happen while wasting massive amounts of money. The costly search for new high-tech weaponry goes on, "but without the Soviet adversary present to justify it. Indeed, the brilliant new weapons systems to be produced by the United States seem most threatening to the brilliant existing weapons systems in the U.S. arsenal, since those are themselves without peer anywhere in the world."

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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