Article — From the October 2002 issue

Dick Cheney’s Song of America

Drafting a plan for global dominance

( 3 of 9 )

Less encouraging was the reac­tion of Paul Wolfowitz, the under­secretary of defense for policy. A lifelong proponent of the unilateral­ist, maximum-force approach, he shared Cheney’s skepticism about the Eastern Bloc and so put his own staff to work on a competing plan that would somehow accommodate the possibility of Soviet backsliding.[1] As Powell and Wolfowitz worked out their strategies, Congress was los­ing patience. New calls went up for large cuts in de­fense spending in light of the new global environ­ment. The harsh­est critique of Pentagon plan­ning came from a usually depend­able ally of the military estab­lishment, Georgia Democrat Sam Nunn, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Nunn told fellow senators in March 1990 that there was a “threat blank” in the administration’s proposed $295 billion defense budget and that the Pentagon’s “basic assessment of the overall threat to our national security” was “rooted in the past.” The world had changed and yet the “development of a new military strategy that responds to the changes in the threat has not yet occurred.” Without that response, no dollars would be forthcoming.

[1] During the elder Bush’s tenure as CIA di­rector in the 1970s, Wolfowitz had served on a panel of defense experts known as “Team B,” which concluded that U.S. in­telligence was vastly underestimating the scale of the Soviet threat — an opinion he had yet to revise in 1990.

Nunn’s message was clear. Powell and Wolfowitz began filling in the blanks. Powell started promoting a Zen-like new rationale for his Base Force approach. With the Soviets rapidly becoming irrelevant, Powell argued, the United States could no longer assess its military needs on the basis of known threats. Instead, the Pentagon should focus on main­taining the ability to address a wide variety of new and unknown chal­lenges. This shift from a “threat based” assessment of military re­quirements to a “capability based” assessment would become a key theme of the Plan. The United States would move from countering Soviet attempts at dominance to en­suring its own dominance. Again, this project would not be cheap.

Powell’s argument, circular though it may have been, proved sufficient to hold off Congress. Winning sup­port among his own colleagues, how­ever, proved more difficult. Cheney remained deeply skeptical about the Soviets, and Wolfowitz was only slowly coming around. To account for future uncertainties, Wolfowitz recommended drawing down U.S. forces to roughly the levels proposed by Powell, but doing so at a much slower pace: seven years as opposed to the four Powell suggested. He also built in a “crisis response/reconstitution” clause that would allow for re­versing the process if events in the Soviet Union, or elsewhere, turned ugly.

With these new elements in place, Cheney saw something that might work. By combining Powell’s con­cepts with those of Wolfowitz, he could counter congressional criti­cism that his proposed defense bud­get was out of line with the new strategic reality, while leaving the door open for future force increases. In late June, Wolfowitz, Powell, and Cheney presented their plan to the president, and within a few weeks Bush was unveiling the new strategy.

Bush laid out the rationale for the Plan in a speech in Aspen, Colorado, on August 2, 1990. He explained that since the danger of global war had substantially receded, the principal threats to American security would emerge in unexpected quarters. To counter those threats, he said, the United States would increasingly base the size and structure of its forces on the need to respond to “regional con­tingencies” and maintain a peacetime military presence overseas. Meeting that need would require maintaining the capability to quickly deliver American forces to any “corner of the globe,” and that would mean retain­ing many major weapons systems then under attack in Congress as overly costly and unnecessary, including the “Star Wars” missile-defense program. Despite those mas­sive outlays, Bush insisted that the proposed restructuring would allow the United States to draw down its active forces by 25 percent in the years ahead, the same figure Powell had projected ten months earlier.

The Plan’s debut was well timed. By a remarkable coincidence, Bush revealed it the very day Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces in­vaded Kuwait.

is an investigate reporter, formerly of the National Security News Service.

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