Less than a year ago, America had the unparalleled opportunity to make the world a gentler place and save some money to boot. But the peace dividend has been squandered.

Congress could have junked billions of dollars in weapons programs designed with a Cold War mentality. Instead, it paid lip service to the peace dividend and budgeted $290 billion for a defense program that turns its back on a new era.

Few in Congress could pass up the chance to look tough at time when the United States is staring down Saddam Hussein. But they're staring him down with weapons intended for Leonid Brezhnev.

In the complex budget compromise are provisions to curb troop strength during the next several years, cut the amount spent on land-based nuclear missiles and overall whittle some $5 billion from the Pentagon's annual take. This is nickel-and-dime stuff compared to some of the big-ticket weapons that Congress didn't have the courage to scrap.

The B-2 "stealth" bomber will go down as the textbook case of how the Pentagon throws money away. Stealth technology is supposed to elude enemy radar, but it has never been tested in battle. The only thing the taxpayers know that the B-2 can elude for sure is the budget ax. The plane has withstood everything its enemies have thrown at it, including the inescapable logic that it has no practical use anymore. The United States shouldn't throw billions of dollars into yet another way of delivering nuclear warheads against the Soviet Union, which could well cease to exist as a country, let alone a strategic threat.

B-2 junkies in and around the military-industrial fraternity are wringing their hands over the fact that Pentagon orders for the plane have been down-scaled from 75 to as few as 15. But even at that, the program will cost taxpayers $4.1 billion in this fiscal year alone.

Another weapon in search of an enemy is the amorphous Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars." It is so high-tech that the average taxpayer who foots the bill would be hard pressed to say what it's supposed to do, not to mention what enemy of the United States is advanced enough to warrant the use of SDI as a nuclear shield. Even if it could work as promised -- a very big "if" -- it belongs to another time.

Considering that the Soviets are stutter-stepping their way into reform, the least the United States could do is put some of its own overblown weapons programs on hold just in case the Soviets aren't putting on an act.

It is one thing to advocate a continued profile of strength at home and abroad for fear of upending the status quo and undermining U.S. allies. But it is folly to pursue a slate of strategic war technologies aimed at no one in particular when America can scarcely afford the basics at home. It is no longer a question of hawks vs. doves. It is a matter of dollars and cents.

But no one wants to be the first to tell the emperor he's a bit undressed. The Persian Gulf deployment is costing money and rallying public support for a strong military. So naturally, in an election year, congressional incumbents aren't about to look soft on defense, even if the multibillion-dollar gadgetry they are funding is useless in a compact desert war against Iraq.

And, there is sheer political selfishness at work. The defense budget, for all its excesses, keeps thousands of Americans employed. Few in Congress on either side of the aisle are eager to bite so generous a hand, especially when a recession is looming.

But the ultimate destroyer of the peace dividend may be bureaucratic unwillingness to sacrifice a sacred cow. High defense budgets, once born of necessity, have now become ritual without reason. To question the wisdom of wartime preparations even in peace is a sacrilege.

So while Americans in need are told to bite the bullet -- save more, borrow less, do without, submit to higher taxes -- useless weapons programs are preserved to line the pockets of defense contractors.