The debate among presidential candidates and their running mates on defense spending and military readiness has not focused on a larger foreign policy issue: when and how do George Bush and Al Gore propose that the United States should use its armed forces for peace-enforcing missions outside the United States?
President Clinton's brief visit to Colombia last month highlights the urgent need for clarity on the question when, and for how long, U.S. forces should be deployed in other countries --to fight drug wars, prevent ethnic cleansing, and/or help a friendly government defend itself against an armed insurgency.
Congress's recent allocation of $1.3 billion in aid to bolster the Colombian military is but the first installment in what is almost certain to become a permanent U.S. commitment to prevent the collapse of Colombia's government. Clinton's additional decision to send military advisers to train Nigeria's army for peace-enforicing operations in Sierra Leone is a further expansion of the U.S. military role abroad.
Conflicting statements made by Bush and Gore about pay and equipment for the armed forces miss the real issue about morale in the military.. What is most damaging is the huge expansion of overseas military deployments since 1990, beginning with the Bush administration's commitment of U.S. forces to the long-term defense of Persian Gulf nations.
Since then Clinton has sent the military on peace-enforcing missions to Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo, while the air force continues its aerial surveillance and occasional bombing of military installations in Iraq. Soon military trainers will be in Nigeria, with the probability that they will eventually become involved in Africa's tribal wars.
Taken together, these interventions raise a central issue in this election year: are U.S. forces overcommitted in terms of the time they are deployed away from home bases? What price are we paying in terms of their morale, and their military readiness?
All the armed services, particularly Army and Navy, have lost junior officers and senior noncoms at rates that bring into question whether ships and units are stretched so thinly around the world that it may be difficult carrying out their missions.
This problem is acute, for example, among Navy pilots who are forced to be away from families for six months, but who have the attractive alternative of signing up with commercial airlines. For young soldiers and officers, keeping the peace in Bosnia or Kosovo is not the duty they signed up for.
Congress has the responsibility to decide how this growing disparity between the size of the armed forces and the burgeoning number of overseas deployments is resolved. Three alternatives exist, but none is politically palatable in an election year.
For example, do we require 37,000 troops in Korea if the favorable trend in relations between North and South Korea reduces tensions and opens commerce? Would not 20-25,000 be sufficient to maintain peace there?
Similarly, do we need to tie down 11,000 U.S. troops in the Balkans when our European NATO allies and the U.N. have accepted the major share of peacekeeping and the rebuilding of economies in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Albania? Would a smaller force, say 4-5,000 American security forces, be a sufficient deterrent to Slobodan Milosevic, to warn him that re-igniting ethnic wars in Bosnia and Kosovo would bring renewed retaliation on his Serb homeland?
In the Persian Gulf area, is it perhaps time to adopt a containment policy toward Iraq's rogue regime that encourages renewed cooperation among the other Gulf countries--Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Iran--even though Tehran's current government displays only modest progress toward democracy? Should Iran not be included in the containment of Saddam Hussein?
A fundamental foreign policy task for the next administration is finding ways to narrow the gap between the expanding U.S. commitments abroad and Congress's reluctance to increase the size of the armed forces and its resistance to increased foreign aid spending, including for United Nations peacekeeping.
The new $1.3 billion military aid commitment to Colombia will eventually lead, in my view, to deployment of U.S. combat troops to bolster its government. President Clinton denies this, but many in Congress think the United States is getting involved in a Vietnam-type "quagmire" there.
Although the United States does not face the same kind of threat in Colombia as President Kennedy confronted in Vietnam in 1962, our experience in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Grenada, and Panama during the 1980s poses a dilemma for Washington's policy makers: if Colombia now requires major attention from the Pentagon, what priorities should be set among other U.S. commitments--in East Asia, Europe, Middle East? How should the armed forces be augmented to meet all these overseas obligations?
George Bush and Al Gore owe it to the country to address these important foreign policy issues in the next few weeks. Otherwise, the public may not be prepared for the hard decisions that a new president will confront next year.
File last modified on Tuesday, 17-AUG-2004 09:30 PM EST