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Just How Big Does the World’s Biggest War Machine Need to Be?

It’s official -- the 2004 presidential campaign has begun. It started last week about 30 miles off the coast of Southern California, and Democrats are already taking on water.

Yes, we all know it was a reelection-minded publicity stunt when President George W. Bush landed aboard the Abraham Lincoln in a military jet. And by the way, it was his most dangerous mission since flyovers of El Paso, back when GI George skipped the war in Vietnam and instead joined the Texas Air National Guard.

But it’s nothing to get upside-down about, as Democrats are doing, flailing at the president with all the impact of a swarm of gnats.

“I do question the motives of a desk-bound president who assumes the garb of a warrior,” scolded Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.). Los Angeles congressman Henry Waxman carped that he wants a “full accounting” of the cost to taxpayers.

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I want a full accounting, too. But not of the aircraft carrier stunt.

In the aftermath of Iraq, I’ve been considering the cost of the most powerful military machine in the history of the universe. Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t have the biggest and best war machine, especially since Sept. 11. I just think maybe we’ve gotten carried away.

Chris Hellman of the Center for Defense Information in Washington has compiled a ranking of the biggest militaries in the world. And it’s a long, long way from No. 1 to No. 2, which is Russia.

Using President Bush’s budget increase requests for fiscal 2004, Hellman puts the U.S. military price tag at $399.1 billion, which includes $19.3 billion for the nuclear operation in the Department of Energy.

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That’s not as high as it was in peak years half a century ago, but it’s more than six times as much as Russia, at $65 billion. And that’s not even the most remarkable aspect of this list. The U.S. military budget would be the size of the next 21 largest militaries in the world combined.

Iraq, world menace, didn’t even crack the top 21. It ranked 39th at $1.4 billion.

No wonder the Iraqi army ran for the hills. The mismatch was the equivalent of the LAPD storming the desert in a war on the Indio Police Department. And you know the Rampart guys at least would have planted a couple of nukes.

“Every single system we operate is better than that of our rivals,” Hellman says of our transcendent military. That’s partly because many countries have given up on the winless proposition of trying to compete.

“For 45 years of the Cold War, we were in an arms race with the Soviet Union,” says a quote on the CDI Web site from Hellman’s colleague, retired Adm. Eugene Carroll Jr. “Now it appears we’re in an arms race with ourselves.”

Unfortunately, being Goliath hasn’t made the United States or the rest of the planet safer from all the Davids out there. If you’re North Korea, Syria or Iran, there’s no better way to overcome a hopeless deficiency in boots and bullets than to drop a nuke in your sling.

“When you have such overwhelming supremacy, you force people to look at alternatives to that kind of power,” Hellman argues. “Not just nuclear weapons, but other weapons of mass destruction as well, which are much easier to obtain.”

Hellman says a $399.1-billion budget represents a $16.9-billion increase over current spending and accounts for 17% of the nation’s total budget. But eliminate Social Security and other mandatory programs, and defense spending would be 51% of the discretionary budget.

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Military spending has been 80% of the discretionary budget in war years. But with terrorism as Public Enemy No. 1, Hellman says millions of dollars in our military budget are wasted on programs better suited to fight World War III against Russia.

Bush’s wimpy critics are missing the point. The question isn’t: Hey, what was he doing landing on that aircraft carrier?

It’s this: Why do we have nine of them?

That’s right. We’ve got nine super-size aircraft carriers, with a 10th one on order.

No other country has even one of those monsters. Are we expecting a sea battle with Al Qaeda?

Bush wants $2.7 trillion in military spending over the next six years despite projections of spectacular budget deficits. Democrats, particularly that timid flock of presidential wannabes, ought to be asking if that’s any way to lead the world.

They ought to be asking how we can hold ourselves up as a model while delivering tax cuts to the wealthiest citizens, even as every statehouse and City Hall slashes services for the neediest.

We’ve just crushed the greatest threat to the free world in less time than it takes to conduct the NBA playoffs.

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Since we’re the ones paying for this juggernaut, shouldn’t we all get a free landing and overnight stay on an aircraft carrier?

Maybe we ought to roll the tanks out every couple of years, too, and knock off a No. 27 or No. 46 on the list, just to keep them oiled.

Or, if we want a fair match, we could simultaneously and of course unilaterally declare war on Nos. 2 through 22: Russia, China, Japan, Britain, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Italy, India, South Korea, Brazil, Taiwan, Israel, Spain, Australia, Canada, Netherlands, Turkey, Mexico, Ukraine, and either Iran or Singapore, which are tied for 22.

I say we can whip them, by George.

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Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at steve.lopez@latimes.com


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