It's one of those little ironies of life that Democrats in Congress are pressing for an expanded military while their party prepares to nominate an antiwar candidate for president. With the exception of Joe Lieberman, all the Democrats sound like Howard Dean redux.
Meanwhile, the Republicans, the party of small government and fiscal restraint, are ginning up a big new spending program to send Americans to the moon while whistling past the deficits. President Bush will lay out his big-picture vision for the country in his State of the Union address Tuesday evening while Rover unfolds on Mars and proves we don't need manned missions to explore space.
The government is being held together with chewing gum and baling wire while Bush muses about a moon shot that would not occur until Jeb Bush's second term in office--if then. He'll strut down the aisle of the House chamber like a victorious war president while the Pentagon issues "stop-loss" orders to bar more than 200,000 members of the military from leaving even though they have fulfilled their service requirements.
"We've extended so many people, we look like we're conscripting people," says California Democratic Rep. Ellen Tauscher, who has 25 cosponsors for her bill to expand the military by 8 percent over three years. Fighting the Iraq insurgency is labor intensive, and the Pentagon doesn't have fresh recruits to reasonably rotate the units that are there. "It's not like you push a button," says Tauscher. "It takes 18 months to deliver the first new guy. If we don't start now, we'll be pulling people off chow lines and handing them a gun."
Tauscher is no wild-eyed lefty. She voted for the resolution that authorized Bush to invade Iraq, and she supported his $87 billion request to underwrite the U.S. mission. She has served seven years on the House Armed Service Committee and says the over-extended and undermanned military is not a new problem. She and others have lobbied the House leadership to hold hearings on the issue since before the Iraq war. Before Congress adjourned last year, she and fellow California Democrat George Miller offered an amendment that would have siphoned off $300 million from the $900 million allocated to search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to better equip the National Guard and Reserve units deployed to fight the insurgency. "Forty thousand people don't have Kevlar jackets," says Tauscher. The amendment was defeated by voice vote.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld insists that the strains on the military are temporary. He has staked his legacy on "transformation," creating a lighter, more mobile and more lethal force. But with 130,000 troops pinned down in Iraq for the foreseeable future, the new military is a pipe dream. Stop-loss orders mask the problem. No one can say with certainty how many of the 200,000 prevented from leaving wanted out, but intuitively policymakers know there's a looming problem. The Pentagon has begun calling up members of The Old Guard ceremonial unit at Arlington National Cemetery, whose experience is guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns and escorting caskets at Dover Air Force Base.
Forty percent of the forces in Iraq will soon be National Guard and Reserve. Pulling that many Guard and Reserve troops into Iraq packs a double whammy that leaves us vulnerable at home since many of those deployed are career firemen, policemen and EMTs, the first-responders Americans rely on for day-to-day protection, and who would be essential should there be another terrorist attack.
Given the pressures on the U.S. military, Tauscher thinks the administration will eventually have to yield just as it did on creating a Department of Homeland Security. Bush initially resisted, then did a 180-degree turn and claimed the idea as his own when polls showed it was popular. Tauscher was an early advocate of the new department, just as she is leading the push in Congress to expand the military. Expanding the military by 8 percent across the board for the Army, Marines and Air Force, as Tauscher proposes, would not require any lowering of standards. "We have plenty of Americans willing to serve," says Tauscher. The military is already 20,000 people over the congressionally mandated caps set for the volunteer Army.
Tauscher is still smarting over the defeat of the amendment that would have diverted a portion of money from the search for weapons of mass destruction to protect U.S. soldiers with Kevlar jackets and Humvees with hardened side doors, She points out that David Kay, who heads the Iraq WMD search team, returned from Iraq before Thanksgiving "and he's not going back," she says. "There are no weapons of mass destruction over there unless they're antiques."
Tauscher's bill would "right size" the military at a cost of $4 billion over five years, a beginning price tag that covers only the people, not the equipment they would need. She suggests the Pentagon "reprogram" some funds to cover the cost. "Give me half a minute and a scrub brush, and I can find the money," she says.