Any doubt that our national security deliberations are going forward in a state of disarray bordering on panic was dispelled on the House floor this week when a defense spending bill, up nearly $20 billion from last year and $2.5 billion from the administration's request, roared through by a 351-42 margin -- with some of the 42 dissenting on grounds that the increase was too small. A litmus item for a new pinch of nerve gas carried easily.
It was that lopsided 10-to-1 vote, adding to the sum that the House Appropriations Committee had approved, that the troubled me, resting as it finally did not on any sober balancing of what the military needs can usefully spend and what the country can afford but on emotions surging on the floor. It forces the question of how a modicum of good sense can be restored to consideration of these affairs.
Jimmy Carter, it has to be said, has lost control. He is reluctant to voice those of his convictions that are on the side of restraint, and he is poorly placed to check the anxieties loosed in part by widespread apprehension that he has not been seeing properly to the nation's defense. Try as he may to cover himself now by displaying ardor for this or that military item -- say, the MX missile -- he remains under a cloud of public suspicion. He has garble the security issue and now he and the country are paying a price for it. gWhether he could get on top of this issue in a second term has got to be a worry regardless of what side of it you are on.
Ronald Reagan, in his own way, offers scarcely more confidence. Notwithstanding the reservations of his savvier aides, he stokes the fires that fuel an open-ended alarmist view of the foreign perils facing the country and that lead to a pile-it-all-on approach to defense spending. Only sporadically and halfheartedly does he address how he will pay for the military power he wishes to acquire -- let alone how he will use it -- and when he is untrue to himself and his little credibility, the more so because he neither posesses nor claims defense expertise.
Then there is John Anderson. He does not have the record that has stirred doubts about Carter's competence and consistency or the imbedded instincts/convictions that spark questions about Reagan's balance and judgment. Carter's scuttle rightward has denied Anderson the tag of "centrist" that he has hung on himself. In terms of current positions, Anderson, for all that he has tries to make sure his right flank is protected, is the liberal condidate and is generally so perceived.
Campaigning, Anderson missed the House vote on defense appropriations. His essential position is, however, to support a strong defense but to leave room for specific judgments on separate items. For example, he accepts the need to care in some way for the increasing theoretical vulnerability of the United States' land-based nuclear missile, but he finds the preferred Carter-Reagan way, the MX missile, unacceptable for a whole set of strategic, economic and other reasons.
Beyond that, Anderson stakes out what I find to be a prudent and politically sustainable overview: Soviet arming and muscle-flexing do indeed make the world an increasingly dangerous place and compel an American response. But that response should take into account relative American strengths as well as weaknesses and should stress a repair of the economy and of our alliances and not simply a buildup in arms.
For some time now, our security argument has been caught up in what seems to me an increasingly sterile exchange. Conservatives have claimed that liberals are gullible, guilt-bound, defeastist and lacking in will, while liberals (or such few as still accept that designation) respond that conservatives are simplistic, pride-bound, arrogant and lacking in confidence in their fellow citizens and in the American way.
Anderson seems to me to be trying to rise above this cross fire into a quieter common-sense zone. He wants to deal with the uncertainties of the East-West military balance -- and also with the other hard facts and soft facts that make international life complicated these days, including the confusion of purposes and the squeeze on resources at home. He is straddling what Thomas Hughes calls the security culture and the equity culture -- an inelegant posture but, all things considered, an appropriate one. c
Anderson has not yet found the style or the forum in which to bring his approach to these issues into the center of public awareness. If he does -- perhaps in a presidential debate? -- the level of the campaign can only rise.