Slamming the Door on Pentagon Neo-Cons

Today’s tale of how Washington really works (and often doesn’t) begins, for a change, with some good news to report – and even some praise for the Bush White House.

Quietly but decisively, President Bush’s top White House national-security and budget officials took a major step forward in the name of America’s homeland security. They did it by just saying no to the Pentagon neo-cons who – with costs of the un-won Iraq peace still soaring – had recommended a step backward in funding the program to secure Russia’s nuclear-weapons materials that remain vulnerable to terrorists.

In a Dec. 23 memo, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz approved a 10 percent cut in the budget of the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, more commonly known by the names of its authors, former Sen. Sam Nunn and Sen. Dick Lugar. The Wolfowitz memo and the White House decision were first reported by the Boston Globe.

In budget terms, the cut was small stuff _ just $46 million. But in homeland-security terms, it is big-time, because this is the program under which the United States has been safeguarding itself by paying to secure and often destroy weapons of mass destruction that were left virtually unprotected when the Soviet Union collapsed.

It is also one of the few defense programs that became a 2004 campaign controversy. Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry charged repeatedly that the Bush administration had under-funded efforts to secure Russia’s still-vulnerable weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, for one year after al Qaeda attacked America on Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration had frozen those Nunn-Lugar program funds. Even though al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden had declared it was his “religious duty” to seek to obtain weapons of mass destruction.

But eventually, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Lugar, R-Ind., convinced Bush to re-fund the program in a lengthy conversation aboard Air Force One. And in his 2004 campaign, Bush declared on several occasions that securing the vulnerable weapons in Russia and throughout the world was his top priority.

So you’d think Bush’s firm declarations that the Nunn-Lugar effort is his No. 1 priority would have ended the schemes of those in the Pentagon who can’t bear to see defense dollars spent on arms control. Maybe you also think everything in Washington works smoothly and logically.

Here is what really happened behind the Washington curtain.

Last fall, according to knowledgeable sources, White House officials decided that the defense budget had to be cut by $10 billion to pay for the soaring cost of war and peace in Iraq. Defense budgeters got to work. Some big cuts, such as $5 billion for missile defense, were easy. But some of those irrepressible Pentagon planners could not resist taking a whack at the Defense Department’s already small share of the Nunn-Lugar CTR program (which also has portions funded by Energy and State department budgets). So they slipped in a measly $46 million cut of the program their president had called his top priority, sent it upstairs to the deputy defense secretary _ and waited. Wolfowitz signed off on the cuts and the memo was sent over to the Office of Management and Budget.

Meanwhile, as always happens, the Pentagon folks who favor the Nunn-Lugar program got word of what was happening and _ you will be shocked to hear this _ they passed the word to Lugar’s office in the first days of the New Year. A Lugar aide telephoned a White House National Security Council aide, who passed the word to his boss, Bush’s newly named national security adviser, Steven Hadley.

Apparently, Hadley understood that it is not good to cut the program that the president told Americans was his top priority. Hadley returned the budget memo, telling the Pentagon that cuts in the Nunn-Lugar CTR program were not acceptable. “It’s written all over the paper,” said one source.

So here’s where we are: We are in a race against terrorists who are seeking to buy or steal a nuclear weapon or nuclear material to make their own crude bomb. We are racing to secure the vulnerable WMDs before the terrorists can get to them. At the pace we are going, it will take 13 years to secure all of the sites in Russia alone. So we need to double our funding, double our pace _ and Bush needs to double his pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin to do so, too. Then we need to secure the vulnerable WMDs in other countries.

One step backward and one step forward is hardly a reason to cheer. But it’s good to know that the Bush White House has just said no, for once, to the Pentagon’s last remaining recalcitrants. For we are in a race that we cannot afford to lose.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.)