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How Much for Defense? It Depends

GOP should heed Pat Buchanan and adopt a foreign policy that requires a much smaller military

ITS victories in November gave the GOP a clear mandate to pursue the Contract With America.

Most of the items on that conservative shopping list are consistent, but two are not -- cutting taxes and the size of the government, on one hand, and bolstering the defense budget, on the other. Republicans should consider making these elements consistent by reevaluating their linkages.

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With a presidential campaign on the horizon, it is no surprise that the GOP is reiterating its pro-defense stance and charging the Clinton administration with recklessly downsizing United States armed forces and undermining readiness.

The GOP's point appears to be well taken when measured against the substantial geopolitical obligations now accepted by Washington. Despite that seeming logic, the GOP is hoisted by its own policy petard when it argues, at the same time, for budget cuts and smaller government.

An answer to this dilemma is being indirectly offered by a GOP presidential candidate who has impeccable conservative credentials -- Pat Buchanan. He has stated as a first priority: ''We need a new foreign policy that ends foreign aid, and pulls up all the trip wires laid down abroad to involve American soldiers in wars that are none of America's business. And we need to demand that rich allies begin paying the full cost of their own defense.''

Mr. Buchanan offers a bold vision of a traditional foreign policy remarkably consistent with post-cold-war circumstances. Today there is no threat comparable to the former Soviet Union, nor is one likely to materialize very soon. Moreover, the much ballyhooed generic threat posed by global instability actually is relatively modest. It does not require armed forces similar to those maintained during the cold war.

The majority of perceived threats are regional in nature and -- most important -- could be greatly mitigated (if not eliminated) from a US perspective by leaving the defense against these threats totally in the hands of the ''allies'' that are actually endangered. Doing so would enable the United States to protect itself with much smaller forces at a far smaller cost.

Were the Buchanan vision to be accepted by the GOP, the questions raised about inadequate military readiness would be transformed by the basic principle of supply and demand. If the United States adjusts its national security priorities away from a series of anachronistic strategic obligations and declines to be entangled by unnecessary commitments, Washington could effectively cut the supply of ''threats'' and thereby reduce the budgetary demands for more defense.

IF the GOP makes those cogent linkages, in keeping with the Buchanan conservative vision of an appropriate US role in the world, the way would be clear for consistency regarding GOP aspirations to cut costs and reduce the size of government, including the Department of Defense. A new balance could be achieved between reduced threats and restrained expenditures. The US defense establishment may also discover striking opportunities to apply privatizing principles to the Pentagon that could further cut government costs and create greater efficiencies.

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It is too early in the 1996 campaign cycle to judge Pat Buchanan's presidential prospects, but he has performed an invaluable service to the country and his party by advocating a revival of long-standing conservative principles in international affairs. If the GOP is influenced by his ideas and pursues this sort of national security posture, it would facilitate far greater rationality in the mix of governing philosophy and strategic practice.

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