Under suspicion, continued
by Seth Gitell
The political buzzword of the week is "military readiness." Earlier in August,
George W. Bush made the readiness issue a key plank in his critique of the
Clinton-Gore years; during his acceptance speech at the Republican National
Convention in Philadelphia, he stated that "if called on by the
commander-in-chief today, two entire divisions of the Army would have to report
`Not ready for duty, sir.' " Last week, Gore pounced on the chance to
prove Bush wrong. He donned his VFW garrison cap and said: "To say that two
divisions can't even respond to a call to deploy, or to imply that our fighting
forces are not the most capable in the world by far, that's mistaken."
Military experts say that on this one Bush is mistaken, but that both
candidates are arguing about the wrong thing in the first place. Andrew
Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University, explains
that after returning from a peacekeeping deployment in the Balkans, the
commanders of two Army divisions felt their troops needed more training to be
ready for combat again. "Does this mean they came back and they were all messed
up?" asks Bacevich. "The soldiers probably learned a lot in the Balkans and had
some valuable experiences."
More interesting than the skirmish over "military readiness," however, is the
fact that Bush opened himself up to criticism on such an easily disproved
allegation. This is the same problem Bush had during the New Hampshire primary:
a propensity just to slide along without addressing issues on point. If he
keeps it up, he'll have even bigger problems as the presidential race moves
into the fall. Gore will fully exploit such mistakes.
Bush advisers, meanwhile, still want to make the case that their
argument on defense is better than Gore's. "The argument needs to be one of
structure -- one of making the military a more relevant instrument for the
post-Cold War era," says Bacevich. "That's where the Republicans can and should
fault the administration." He adds that the problem with such an argument is
that the Republicans and Democrats don't really disagree on it, because they
don't really disagree on foreign policy.
Tom Neumann, a Washington-based national-security expert, says differences do
exist between the Democrats and Republicans -- but they're on the margins of
the debate. Bush, Neumann says, could have questioned "the quality of the
military, the pay, the commitment to ballistic-missile defense, the amount of
deployments during the Clinton administration, the question of support for our
allies, Clinton's permitting things to have been sold to China that shouldn't
have been, the whole idea of making the military a social experiment."
That Bush could have raised any of these issues, but chose not to, suggests a
certain intellectual laziness on his part. The Texas governor clearly likes to
avoid truly controversial and difficult issues. It's something that will surely
weaken his run for the presidency.
Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com.
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