Military debaate needs some straight talk

Posted: Friday, September 01, 2000

The following editorial appeared in today's edition of the Washington Post:

It's encouraging to see the presidential campaign sliding toward a debate about foreign policy, military readiness and the U.S. role in the world. These are issues that have received too little attention. It would be even more encouraging if one side or the other were arguing forthrightly for an active, engaged and well-funded U.S. presence overseas. Instead, so far one side has diagnosed a problem but come up with the wrong solution; the other denies that any problem exists.

The problem, Republican vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney charged Wednesday, is that the U.S. military is "overused and under-resourced." Cheney, who served as secretary of defense in the administration of Bush's father, said that U.S. military spending as a percentage of economic output is lower now than at any time since 1940. He said that equipment is aging and - in part because many units are stretched too thin - morale is falling, and many good men and women are leaving the service.

It's not enough - in fact, it's not acceptable - for the Gore campaign to respond to this by implying that any criticism of the military is unpatriotic. Cheney and his running mate, Gov. George W. Bush, aren't insulting the military, and they aren't giving aid and comfort to potential enemies. The Democrats should stop suggesting they are. It would be more valid to charge Cheney with exaggeration: to point out that the problems are not as cataclysmic as he suggests. Congress and the Clinton administration recently have agreed to increase military pay and the weapons procurement budget, reversing some of the trends of recent years. Still, the problems are real - the Joint Chiefs have been calling attention to them for years - and Vice President Gore should speak to the issues. He has urged a new foreign policy of "forward engagement," treating AIDS and other problems as national security threats; what resources will he devote to diplomacy, foreign aid or the military for carrying out such a policy?

By the same token, Cheney, while he complains about how little the Clinton administration is devoting to the military as a share of the national economy, doesn't propose to spend much more. He says President Clinton extended too far the legitimate slimming down of the military that President Bush ordered after the Soviet Union's collapse - but he calls for no restoration.

On the contrary, to the extent he proposes any solution, Cheney seems to favor a kind of disengagement dictated by a smaller military force. Echoing Bush, he says a Republican administration would "review our overseas deployments in dozens of countries." But from where would a Bush-Cheney administration withdraw troops? Korea? Germany? Japan? These are where most overseas deployments take place, and those troops play an important part in keeping the world at peace.

Cheney Thursday suggested that a Bush administration would consider withdrawing U.S. troops from Kosovo and Bosnia, "to have our European friends and allies pick up a bigger share of the burden there." Today 4,600 U.S. troops are patrolling in Bosnia, out of 22,000 peacekeepers, and there are 6,200 Americans in a Kosovo peacekeeping force of 44,000. Are those 10,800 soldiers too big a burden for an armed force of 1.4 million? To say yes - to pull back from this modest U.S. commitment - would be to signal a dangerous lack of U.S. interest in completing the democratization of Europe. The Bush campaign is sounding more and more like the Republican isolationists in Congress, and less and less like the Reagan and Bush administrations whose spirit Cheney invoked. Is that really the message on U.S. leadership that the Bush campaign wants to send?

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