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The following editorial appeared in today's edition of the Washington Post: George W. Bush chose a traditional forum, a gathering of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, to launch a traditional Republican assault on his Democratic opponent for being weak on defense. The next president, he said on Monday, will inherit "a military in decline." It was a curious kind of assault, though. While noting that U.S. spending on the military as a percentage of the national economy is lower than it has been in decades, Gov. Bush didn't propose spending much more. Instead, he hinted at, without really spelling out, a solution that would be far more dangerous than the condition he proposes to cure - that is, a curbing of U.S. commitments and a withdrawal of some troops from overseas, which in the long run would lead to more conflict and instability.
There are really two arguments being waged here between Gov. Bush and Vice President Gore, who addressed the same veterans' forum in Milwaukee Tuesday. One concerns the current state of military readiness, morale and equipment. Gore was surely right when he called it "the best-trained, best-equipped, best-led fighting force in the world." The U.S. military budget is greater than those of Russia, China, France and Germany combined. No country comes close in technology. The U.S. military is not, in any significant sense, in decline.
But in places it is showing strains, as Bush, albeit with some exaggeration, suggested. Frequent overseas deployments have put stress on military families and, in the Air Force and Navy, pushed some qualified pilots and others into civilian life. A booming civilian economy also has made recruitment and retention more difficult. In some senses the military is living on borrowed time. President Clinton has been able to coast on the procurement binge of the Reagan years; the next administration will have to spend more to modernize the arsenal, equip it with spare parts and develop the next generation of weapons. Whether recent improvements in pay and pensions will solve the military's personnel problems also remains to be seen.
The answer to these strains may lie in bigger budgets. The military also may have to make do with less and Congress to give up some pork: close unneeded bases, live without some submarines or other weapon systems that were designed for the Cold War. The answer does not lie - and here is where the second argument comes into play - in reducing the military's mission simply to meet an arbitrary fiscal goal or ensure the contentment of the force. Bush has said the United States has no vital interests in Africa. He has questioned the U.S. role in places such as Kosovo and Bosnia. He said Monday that he would order "an immediate review" of U.S. troop commitments in "dozens of countries." Which ones seem expendable? Bush doesn't say.
Gov. Bush is right that the United States can't solve every global problem. But the subtext of his speech, echoing his national security adviser's applause line at the Republican convention - "America's armed forces are not a global police force, they are not the world's 911," Condoleezza Rice said - is that the United States is doing too much. Interestingly, Clinton came into office with the same instinct. He resisted for several years any involvement in the Balkans. The result: hundreds of thousands were killed and the United States in the end still had to get involved, but under far more trying circumstances.
When U.S. troops defended Europe, Japan and South Korea during the Cold War, many in Congress demanded an "exit strategy" - "burden-sharing" was the key word then - but fortunately Republican and Democratic presidents alike resisted. Now the threats have changed, but the logic is the same. If the United States stays engaged and demonstrates that it is willing to defend its interests, its values and its allies, it is less likely to be challenged and drawn into war. "In this new global age," Gore said Tuesday, "we need an even greater resolve." In this argument, it is Bush who, despite some muscular rhetoric, is sounding weak on defense.