IN THE 1972 presidential campaign, Democratic nominee George McGovern proposed cutting the planned defense budget of the Nixon administration by about 30 percent. That would have meant cutting defense to about $166 billion in today's dollars. In a debate on the McGovern plan, sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, Nixon's secretary of defense, Melvin Laird, argued that the full Nixon budget was needed to check Soviet expansionism but conceded that if the Cold War ended, it would make sense to move in the direction suggested by McGovern.

Some 20 years later, one of McGovern's campaign workers, Bill Clinton, is in the White House, and the Soviet Union and its empire are no more. Yet defense spending, even after adjusting for inflation, is actually $30 billion higher than it was in 1975, and both Clinton and the majority of the Republicans want to make it higher. In his first State of the Union Address in January 1994, President Clinton said he would make no further cuts in defense spending, and shortly after the Republican victory in the 1994 congressional elections, Clinton added $25 billion to his own defense program.

The Republican budget plan, recently endorsed by both houses of Congress, slashes nearly a trillion dollars from the federal budget over the next seven years. Yet it increases defense spending by about $60 billion. For the 1996 budget alone, the Republican-controlled House added almost $10 billion to Clinton's proposed defense budget. Such increases certainly do not respond to public preferences: In a CNN-Time poll in May, 58 percent of respondents opposed the Clinton/Republican proposals to increase defense spending, while only 36 percent supported them. But neither do these increases respond to realistic defense requirements.

How does it happen that the world's only military superpower -- which already spends about five times as much on defense as its closest competitor and almost as much as the rest of the world combined -- takes defense off the table while planning draconian cuts in health and welfare to deal with its deficit problem? The answer is a result of the interaction of several political and bureaucratic factors. First, given his avoidance of military service and lack of foreign policy experience, Clinton may feel he is in no position to stand up to the military. His original defense budget proposal, as part of his 1993 economic package, called for spending about $1.3 trillion from 1994 to 1998. But when the Pentagon completed its "Bottom-Up-Review" of our post-Cold War needs, its leaders argued that the military needed $50 billion more if it was to be able to handle two major regional contingencies simultaneously. To date, Clinton himself has added $36 billion to his original five-year program, and he still has three more years to go. As his old mentor George McGovern noted, the most glaring weakness of the Clinton administration is that it is living with the defense budget of the now-dead Cold War era. The Clinton administration and the Democratic party remain fearful about the Republicans playing the readiness card again. In 1980, the Republicans made political hay by arguing that the defense policies of the Carter administration had created a "hollow military." No sooner had Clinton taken office in 1993, and even before his policies had taken effect, than Republicans were again warning about readiness problems. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) issued a report called "Going Hollow"; Rep. Floyd Spence (D-S.C.) argued the military was in a downward readiness spiral; and Dick Cheney, George Bush's defense secretary, was writing about the hollow force. The Carter administration did indeed have readiness problems, but these were caused by the poor quality of its recruits and lack of funding for training. But today, virtually every military person is a high school graduate with above-average test scores, and readiness spending per capita is not only 50 percent higher than in the Carter administration, but 10 percent higher than in the Reagan years. If anything, Clinton is spending too much on readiness. Politicians of both parties see the defense budget as a jobs program. No longer does the defense debate take place between hawks and doves, but between those who have defense facilities in their districts and those who don't. The tone for this debate was set by candidate Clinton in 1992, when he endorsed the $13 billion SSN-21 Seawolf submarine program that George Bush was trying to cancel. Last year, as the B-2 production line was about to close after producing the authorized 20 planes, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) rose on the Senate floor to proclaim that this nation needed more B-2's because this Cold War relic carried a heavy "payroll."

Although the record was changed to read "payload," the senator was correct the first time. But as a result of the efforts of Feinstein and some of her colleagues, the B-2 was saved from extinction last year. Two weeks ago it received another new lease on life, in spite of the opposition of the Pentagon, with the support of 17 members of the Black Caucus. As Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), a caucus member, noted, in justifying her vote, "My district has many aerospace jobs which are being lost."

The V-22 Osprey and the C-17 transport aircraft were also beneficiaries of the defense jobs program. Finally, to save jobs in their districts, Congress keeps 27 more Army National Guard brigades on its rolls than the Pentagon's war planners say are needed, and provides some $500 million worth of unnecessary equipment to the Guard annually. The military has succeeded in inflating the threat from our foes and downplaying the contributions of our allies. According to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Pentagon would need to send 400,000 people to South Korea to help it defend itself against the North Koreans (more than we sent in the 1950s). This number is needed, the chiefs argued, because a South Korean soldier is only 70 percent as effective as a U.S. fighting person, while a North Korean is as effective as an American. If one assumes instead that a North Korean is only half as effective as an American, the number of troops would drop to 200,000.

Similarly, by the Pentagon's calculations, in the event of another Gulf War against Saddam's weakened army, America would need another 400,000 people because we would again have to evict the Iraqis from Kuwait, and we would have to go it alone. If we assume instead that we will act before Saddam gets to Kuwait (as we did last fall), and that our European allies send five divisions and five air wings, then our requirements could easily be met by 200,000 military people. Unlike most businesses and other federal agencies, the Pentagon has not yet fully re-engineered itself. It still keeps several hundred thousand troops regularly deployed around the world as it did when it was containing the Soviet threat. Moreover, it continues to miss opportunities to reduce its excessive overhead costs. The list of bases the Pentagon was supposed to submit to the 1995 Base Realignment and Closure Commission was to be greater than the sum of the 1988, 1991 and 1993 lists combined, i.e., 70 major bases. Two years ago, then-secretary of defense Les Aspin said the 1995 shutdowns would be the mother of all base closings because infrastructure cuts were lagging far beyond force structure reductions.

Instead, the 1995 list called for closing fewer bases than in 1993 and resulted in annual long-term savings of $1.6 rather than $6 billion.

Similarly, in its May 1995 report, the Roles and Missions Commission, headed by Deputy Secretary of Defense John White, failed to come to grips with the expensive duplication among the services in such areas as close air support, space, deep interdiction and air defense, because the service chiefs dug in their heels. The debate on defense spending has been characterized by a number of misleading indicators. Supporters of increased defense spending compare today's military to that of Reagan or Bush. But Clinton's military is not going to fight the armed forces of Reagan or Bush. Similarly, defense hawks point out that the defense budget has declined somewhat in real terms since its peak 10 years ago. But they fail to note that the threat has also declined as have the levels of defense spending by nearly every country in the world. The total defense budgets of the other 15 NATO members amount to about $145 billion.

Between the Korean War and the collapse of the Berlin Wall, this nation spent over $10 trillion, or about 8 percent of its GDP, to maintain the level of military readiness necessary to contain the evil empire. By and large, it was money well spent.

In the first part of this decade, America and its military began a successful readjustment to the post-Cold War era. But the readjustment is not yet complete. To date, we have reduced defense spending by only about 10 percent below its average Cold War level. We can easily reduce defense spending by another 30 percent and still be the world's preeminent military power, while freeing up the resources to help us solve our deficit problem. Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow in foreign policy at The Brookings Institution, served as assistant secretary of defense for five years in the Reagan administration.