Why the Military Resists Conscription by Bush

  • Share
  • Read Later
Bashing Al Gore over the state of U.S. military preparedness may be backfiring on George W. Bush, some U.S. military officials believe. The Republican candidate's claims that Clinton-era neglect has left the military unprepared for war and its personnel impoverished has prompted the Pentagon to hit back, disputing many of Bush's claims and pointing out that more than twice as many military personnel relied on food stamps back when Dick Cheney was defense secretary than do today. The military has already poured cold water on Bush's claim, in his convention speech, that two U.S. Army divisions are not ready for war, saying their unreadiness rating was an administrative glitch, not evidence of threadbare troops. Now he's feeling the sting of military rebuke again for his claim, on Thursday, that the destroyer USS Decatur abandoned a recent military exercise for lack of fuel; Navy officials say the vessel had completed its training early and had headed back to port to allow crew members to spend more time with their families.

Military spending also may lack traction as a line of attack for Bush against Gore, since both men are committed to substantial increases over the next decade — in fact, Gore says he wants a $100 billion increase in that time, while Bush talks of a $45 billion figure. But despite readiness shortfalls the military right now isn't exactly cash-strapped: The U.S. still spends 95 cents for every dollar it spent on the military at the height of the Cold War — more than all of its NATO allies combined, and several times more than Russia and China combined. In fact, in inflation-adjusted terms, the U.S. in 1992 spent $10,000 less per active-duty troop on combat readiness than it does today.

If there is a problem, it involves how — not how much — money is being spent. And spending priorities within the military are an area on which both candidates prefer to remain somewhat vague.

That's not to say there aren't major problems. The military is certainly stretched, and a recent Army report says that commanders at 11 of the service's 20 training bases gave themselves the lowest possible readiness rate for the six months ending in March. But those are problems that more money could fix in short order. Another problem is that many of today's specialized units, such as AWACS radar planes, airborne jammers, search and rescue units and military police, have been run ragged since the Cold War, and the Clinton Pentagon could certainly have done a better job easing their load — as troops say it has begun doing in recent months.

The Republicans are critical of the growing number of nickel-and-dime operations that have involved the U.S. military over the past decade. But the peacekeeping missions Bush has cited as weakening America's military involve only a tiny slice — 1 percent or so — of the nation's active-duty troops. "You need to make certain that the issue at hand rises to the level of being of strategic significance to the United States," Cheney told reporters outside Philadelphia Wednesday. "You should never do it simply as a response to public pressure that rises lots of times with press coverage of tragedies." Perhaps he'd forgotten that this is precisely what the Bush administration, in which he was defense secretary, did in Somalia in December 1992.

Bush also criticizes Clinton over recruiting and retention levels, although again, these criticisms may be unduly amplified from a political platform. After all, the military has been competing with a red-hot economy in recent years, and retention levels were certainly diminished by the 20 percent cut in retirement benefits effected by the Reagan administration. Those have begun to improve since the cuts were recently restored, and the Army, Navy and Marines have met their recruitment targets for the current fiscal year, with the Air Force still iffy.

The Pentagon's repudiations may have cooled the Bush camp's ardor for cheap hits on military matters. And all that retired brass he hauled out this week for a Michigan speech on martial matters highlighted another problem he has with the officer class. "It's really bad when he travels and gives a speech along with Colin Powell," one Navy officer said today. "It makes it pretty clear that the wrong guy is running for president."