In a presidential campaign overshadowed by foreign policy, Democratic nominee John Kerry and incumbent George W. Bush have both called for troop increases and redeployment to sustain missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
But uniformed and civilian critics alike say the Pentagon doesn’t have the personnel needed to sustain so many international commitments.
And some analysts say that expanding the military’s scope — a stated goal of both major-party candidates — does more to maintain U.S. economic and martial influence than effectively fight terrorism.
The strains on troop strength have been accompanied by preliminary steps to organize a draft, although both candidates and the Pentagon deny interest in reinstating conscription, and military observers say it is unlikely.
The Pentagon’s official position is that the personnel shortage is temporary.
“This is just a short-term force-management issue, and it will be relieved sometime in the future,” said Dr. Curtis Gilroy, the Defense Department’s director of recruiting policy.
But a new report from the Defense Science Board, a Pentagon advisory body, says the military must add substantially to troop levels, cut back on missions, or find other nations to shoulder the burden.
These concerns were echoed by Dan Smith, a retired Army colonel and military affairs analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus, a progressive think tank.
“[Y]ou don’t have a large pool of reserves anymore in case something else pops up,” he said.
At a September 24 press conference, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters that he was “not concerned” about troop shortages.
“We have, as you know, underway something like 35 or 45 initiatives to reduce stress” on personnel, he said.
These initiatives include making heavy use of reserve and National Guard units, preemptively extending active-duty soldiers’ tours, bringing in new recruits months ahead of schedule, lowering Army recruitment standards, and paying bonuses to entice thousands of Air Force and Navy personnel whose terms are expiring to re-enlist in the Army.
Despite these efforts, the Army National Guard brought in 5,000 fewer recruits than planned this year, and last Tuesday an Army spokeswoman said that 1,085 reservists had failed to report for duty. At least eight have been declared absent without leave.
Some experts say stress on the military could be reduced outside Iraq by treating terrorism as a law-enforcement, rather than military, problem.
In Switzerland, after investigators arrested 10 people for running a logistics and financial network tied to Al Qaeda and terror cells throughout the world, Attorney General Valentin Roshacher expressed regret that his country’s approach wasn’t more popular.
At a press conference this summer, he said “disregard for the criminal law, or the mixing of criminal and martial law, have not markedly improved worldwide security.”
Smith of Foreign Policy in Focus said that the terrorist network behind the September 11 attacks is similar to an international crime family.
Spending more money on intelligence and diplomacy, and reducing the military’s role, he said, would relieve personnel stress and focus on disrupting Al Qaeda.
“This is where your intelligence comes in,” he said, “comparing notes, strengthening the ability of other countries to prevent future attacks through law-enforcement mechanisms and intelligence-sharing mechanisms. Keep your special-forces guys in your hip pocket.”
But this perspective is unlikely to be advanced by Bush or Kerry, who share a core belief in America’s unchallenged global military and economic dominance.
“Full power of America’s arsenal”
In February, Kerry proposed permanently expanding the Army by 40,000 soldiers to reduce the accumulating pressure on the armed forces. These troops would not be sent to Iraq, and would include a doubling of Special Forces units to track Al Qaeda.
Kerry also said he would be willing to launch pre-emptive wars, and Mark Kitchens, his deputy press secretary for national security, promised his candidate would leverage the “full power of America’s arsenal,” including “economic power.”
The Democratic candidate has praised Bush’s strategy to create an archipelago of new “lily-pad” bases in previously inaccessible regions, such as East Africa and Central Asia.
Although the White House declined to comment for this story, Bush has said his strategy would create a more flexible military better placed to fight terrorism.
Critics say the move is an effort to consolidate American military dominance worldwide, and forestall resistance to Washington’s ambitions.
“We’re doing too much, we’re scattered in too many places, we’re trying to be all things to everybody and run the world,” Smith said.
Dr. Ivan Eland, a researcher with the libertarian Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif., said the result is an “informal empire” of 700 military bases worldwide that provide client states like Saudi Arabia and South Korea with abundant military aid at U.S. expense.
“We pay to defend people just to have the prestige of being the most powerful nation in the world,” he said.
This might justify the Pentagon’s post-Cold War budgets, he added, but also produces “blowback terrorism that is a result of our interventionist foreign policy.”
Neither Bush nor Kerry have released concrete timetables to remove troops from Iraq, although both promise to gradually replace U.S. troops with international and Iraqi forces.
Green Party presidential nominee David Cobb and independent candidate Ralph Nader both call for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, expulsion of U.S. corporate interests from Iraq, and massively increased reconstruction aid to the country. A number of early Democratic hopefuls — including Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton — took similar positions before they endorsed Kerry.
The Bush administration has been unsuccessful in securing additional troop commitments from major allies, and has seen small contingents from Spain, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Honduras and the Philippines pull out of the country.
Kitchens would not give an exact number, but his candidate has promised a “significant, enormous reduction in the level of troops” in Iraq.
At a Labor Day rally, the senator said that he could have all the troops home in four years, but since then has declined to offer firm numbers or timetables.
Speaking on PBS in July, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, affirmed that 145,000 U.S. troops would be in Iraq for “probably four or five years” before Iraqi security forces would be adequate.
If a lengthy Iraq occupation exhausts the volunteer military, the potential for a draft is uncertain.
Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) and Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-SC) introduced bills last winter that would reestablish a draft for men and women aged 18-26, with deferments for education permitted only through high school.
The House voted 402-2 on Tuesday, Oct. 5, to kill Rangel’s bill, which the representative introduced last January as a protest to the White House policy on Iraq. In the Senate, Hollings’ bill is apparently still waiting in the wings.
Last November, the Pentagon posted a notice on its Web site that called for “trusted and objective” volunteers to fill the nearly 21,000 slots on local draft and appeal boards.
Pentagon spokesman Gilroy, however, insists a new draft is not possible.
“The [Defense] Department and the administration are very much opposed to any reinstitution of the draft, and have no plans whatsoever to reintroduce it,” he said.
Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, said the political repercussions of a draft would be too strong, even for a second-term president.
In the 1960s, he said, “the draft radicalized a whole generation of American youth. That’s not something they want to repeat.”