WASHINGTON - Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview published yesterday that the Persian Gulf War has made it safer to cut the U.S. military budget.
"Think hard about it," Powell told the Army Times newspaper. "I'm running out of demons. I'm running out of villains. I'm down to (Fidel) Castro and Kim Il Sung," he said, referring to the leaders of Cuba and North Korea.
Powell also said he would be "very surprised if another Iraq occurred. Iraq has spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 billion or $60 billion over the past 10 or 12 years. Whether that kind of wealth is around and whether anybody wishes to invest that wealth in hardware for war is unlikely."
The general made these remarks to support his view that the Bush administration can safely proceed with its plan, drawn up before the Gulf War began, to cut the military budget by 3 percent in each of the next five years.
However, some analysts, on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, believe this logic can support even deeper cuts in the budget.
Powell's comments suggested the Gulf War has not solved a major problem for some Pentagon planners over the past three years - how to justify a large army and a nearly $300 billion military budget in the post-Cold War era.
Powell and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney have said over the past several months that the Warsaw Pact is finished as a military organization and that a Soviet invasion of Western Europe almost impossible.
As a result, they and other top military officials have focused more on the dangers posed by regional crises. However, most of those scenarios involve countries much less heavily armed than Iraq.
Small-scale invasions and interventions are viewed as more likely. Powell noted in the Army Times interview that since he became chairman just 18 months ago, the United States has used military force on six occasions. However, except for the Gulf War, all of those incidents involved a fairly small number of troops.
Even after the next five years of budget cuts, Powell said, the U.S. military would still be able to win a war such as the conflict with Iraq, though it would be "a longer and much more difficult process."
"We'll still have 1.5 million people in uniform," he said. "We'll still have 12 Army divisions, three Marine divisions, 26 tactical fighter wings, 435 or so ships, a modernized strategic nuclear arsenal. That's not beanbags."