The presidential campaigns are swapping salvos on the state of the U.S. military. Gov. George Bush declares, "The next president will inherit a military in decline." Vice President Al Gore shoots back, "Our military is the strongest and the best in the entire world." All this over the relatively small matter of whether two of the Army's 10 divisions are ready to fight. The danger is that this predictably vacuous debate will launch a bidding war to see who can throw the most cash at the Pentagon.
Republicans have always had a reputation as the party that supports a strong national defense. Bush and his running mate, former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, are trying to take advantage of that aura to paint Gore and the Democrats as weak on national security and to hide Bush's own minimal experience in the field. In response, Gore will likely promise even greater largesse for the Pentagon than the spending increases he has advocated to date.
But what is the reality? When Gore calls the U.S. military the best in the world, he is actually making an understatement. U.S. forces have bone-crushing dominance over any other military on the planet -- including the large but hollow Russian forces and an antiquated Chinese military that has been slow to modernize. Despite the post-Cold War cuts in the U.S. defense budget, the United States accounts for about one-third of all military spending in the world and spends as much as the next seven countries combined. The next best militaries in the world -- those of our allies -- are afraid of falling so far behind U.S. forces that they can no longer operate with them in the field.
The Democrats are correct that the Bush campaign has selective amnesia on defense cuts. Since the height of the Reagan defense buildup, the Republicans have been responsible for cuts that dwarf those of the Democrats. The defense budget declined from $448 billion (all figures in fiscal year 2001 dollars) in 1985 to $334 billion in Bush senior's last budget -- a drop of $114 billion. For the last five years, during the Clinton-Gore administration, the budget has held steady at approximately $300 billion -- a net decrease of about $34 billion. In fact, the Clinton-Gore administration, with the backing of Congress, has begun to increase defense spending again.
But Bush and Cheney are also correct when they cite growing problems with readiness in the military -- shortages of spare parts and training, problems with recruitment and retention of personnel, and low morale among the troops. There is no denying that the Clinton-Gore administration has stretched the force to its limits. By 1999, the administration had deployed U.S. forces abroad at a record-setting pace of 48 peace-enforcement and combat missions. Most of the "pockets of unreadiness" in an otherwise dominant military are caused by those furious and far-flung deployments -- for example, Bosnia, Kosovo and Haiti -- which rapidly wear out equipment and people.
The Bush campaign rightly believes that many such deployments are not required for U.S. national security but is suspiciously vague on which deployments, if any, to eliminate. No less cloudy are the criteria for determining whether and when to intervene overseas. Moreover, Bush and Cheney criticize the current state of the U.S. military but fail to justify maintaining a substantial percentage of U.S. forces at the razor's edge of readiness in the more benign post-Cold War threat environment.
In sum, a bipartisan consensus exists among the presidential candidates to maintain an overextended foreign policy buttressed by at least some increases in defense budgets. No matter which candidate is elected, the military is likely to be stretched too thin. That unfortunate situation could be remedied by a thorough and honest review of the threats (minimal) that foreign militaries pose to the United States in a post-Cold War world, and by the consequent pruning of excessive U.S. commitments abroad. If unnecessary commitments were eliminated, the already bloated U.S. military budget could be reduced significantly without excessively stressing the armed forces and their personnel.
The campaign pabulum that passes for a defense debate has focused on very small trees -- whether two Army divisions are ready to fight. Obscured from view is the choking forest of profligate U.S. interventions and the huge defense budgets needed to carry them out.