On issues of war and peace, progressives should take heart from the fact that no matter how aggressive the Bush Administration’s intentions may be, its ability to carry them out is likely to be severely circumscribed in a second term.

In the wake of the November elections, arms control and peace advocates scored an important victory when Congress eliminated funding for research on new nuclear weapons, including $27.6 million for the macho-sounding Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator. The leader in this effort was Republican Representative David Hobson. In another promising sign, the Pentagon took advantage of the slow news week between Christmas and New Year’s to leak its plans to cut $30 billion from more than a dozen weapons programs in the next five years. The cuts amount to only a little over 1 percent of the $2.5 trillion planned for the Pentagon’s total budget over the next five years, and some represent little more than a budget shell game; as Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress points out, the Pentagon plans to buy one Virginia-class attack submarine per year for the next five years instead of two, but it still plans to buy the same total number. And other proposed cuts may be stopped in their tracks by the arms lobby, once interested members of Congress from Texas, Georgia and beyond team up with contractors like Lockheed Martin to save home-state systems like the F-22 fighter and the C-130J transport plane.

But even allowing for these limitations, the fact that the Pentagon felt compelled to offer any cuts at all provides an important opportunity to debate national security priorities. Budget deficits are running at $300 billion to $400 billion per year, even before accounting for the $2 trillion, ten-year cost of the plan for partial privatization of Social Security. And there is little possibility of postponing budget tradeoffs by throwing more billions onto our national credit card. As popular domestic programs come onto the budgetary chopping block, everything will be up for debate.

An equally urgent task is rethinking how national security funds are spent. Much of what is needed to protect against terrorism can be achieved with relatively small, focused investments within the Pentagon budget. Other security priorities fit outside the Pentagon budget altogether. In a report last year, a task force organized by the Institute for Policy Studies and the Security Policy Working Group advocated a shift of approximately $50 billion per year from big-ticket weapons systems like the F-22 and the V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft to programs for securing “loose” nuclear weapons around the world, for nonmilitary foreign aid and for protecting ports, industrial plants and other domestic facilities against possible terrorist attacks. The report targeted many of the same systems involved in the Pentagon’s current cuts, but instead of “shaving” them suggested canceling them.

Another area where the Bush Administration may be vulnerable to pressure is in increasing funding to dismantle nuclear weapons and secure or destroy nuclear bomb-making materials in the former Soviet Union. Despite giving rhetorical support for these programs, the Administration’s 2005 budget requested only $919 million for Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction programs to carry out this important work, $72 million less than the year before. By contrast, the Administration is still lavishing $10 billion per year on a missile defense program that couldn’t even get an interceptor missile out of its silo in a test in early December.

The elephant in the room in any discussion of US military policy is Iraq. The Administration will soon put forward an $80 billion supplemental request for funds for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan with another funding request later this year. This will be on top of the FY 2006 Pentagon budget, estimated at $418 billion, plus $20 billion for the military activities of the Energy Department (mostly nuclear weapons-related work). Political demands to drastically reduce the US presence or simply get out of Iraq will continue to mount as the costs and casualties do.

But even large doses of political and budgetary reality in Iraq will be in competition with the continued taste for grandiosity in the Pentagon, as evidenced by Seymour Hersh’s recent revelations of Donald Rumsfeld’s covert planning for military strikes on Iranian nuclear/military installations. If Hersh’s sources are accurate and these plans move forward, all bets will be off in the face of a reckless adventure whose consequences may take years to play out. All the more reason to speak out now against the notion of covert military action in Iran, and against the idea of empowering the Pentagon to undertake such adventures.