Cart Before the Horse

We can expect a weak, non-mandatory, strictly advisory resolution from the Senate next week declaring open dismay at President Bush’s latest bit of strategery in Iraq. This could be an important first step – depending on whether other significant steps follow – but even the Wall Street Journal recognizes that it is a bit of a dodge.

Sen. Russ Feingold, who to his credit was opposed to the war from the beginning, has introduced a resolution to cut off funding in six months, which just might actually end the war, depending on whether the Bush administration interpreted it as violating the executive’s sacred "inherent" or "plenary" powers. But that one’s going nowhere just now. The brave Democrats, or at least most of those in Congress, are ready only for symbolic gestures of opposition – which to be sure is more than we got from other than a handful of elected Republicans.

So it’s unlikely that Congress will end the war. What might begin to do so over a somewhat longer haul, however, could be the increasingly difficult chore of recruiting enough cannon fodder to guard the farther outposts of the empire. Military officials are, publicly at least, vaguely aware of this problem and in private may be much more conversant with it than anyone knows. But they have the analysis backwards. We need to decide on a foreign policy – one that will make enough recruits proud to serve again – before determining how many troops are required to sustain it.


Defense Secretary Robert Gates has asked the chief of each service branch for a plan by the end of February to minimize the number of "stop-loss" orders. This is superficially a welcome idea in that these orders have created something resembling a backdoor draft and have hurt morale. But fixing the more fundamental problem will require more fundamental policy changes.

Stop loss orders can be issued to military personnel whose contracted hitches in the service are about to expire. Service members whose volunteer commitments are about to expire can be forced to remain until their overseas deployment ends and up to another 90 days after returning home. Some military people have been kept on duty for 18 months beyond when they had planned to leave or retire.

This isn’t quite a breach of contract, since the possibility of such orders is understood to be part of the deal when people enlist. But it does violate the spirit of a volunteer military, and it has caused some morale problems. The Christian Science Monitor estimated a year ago that stop-loss orders had been used on more than 50,000 U.S. troops who were planning to leave or retire.

The courts have backed the military in the few cases that have come before them. So stop loss is not illegal. However, as Secretary Gates seems to recognize, it is not a sustainable practice over the long haul.

We have had an all-volunteer military since 1973 and in most respects it has been a remarkable success. The stop-loss power was used rarely until the first Gulf War, when authorities used it to keep some units together for combat duty. It has been used more extensively since 9/11, and especially since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The problem, as top officers have recognized since the U.S. went to an all-volunteer military, is that people who don’t want to be there do not always make the best soldiers, sailors, pilots and Marines. The invasion of Iraq, however, not only created a perceived need for more service personnel, it has not made it easier to recruit new people.

Secretary Gates no doubt considers fixing the stop-loss problem a precursor to his earlier proposal, echoed by President Bush in his State of the Union message, to increase the U.S. armed forces by 92,000 people over the next five years – 65,000 additional soldiers for the Army, bringing the total to 547,000, and 27,000 additional Marines, bringing the total to 202,000. He almost certainly figures that it will be difficult to recruit even more people into the military if they know in advance that they are likely to be faced with stop-loss orders that could keep them in harm’s way for even longer periods.

Since a number of Democrats have also called for increasing the size of the military in light of difficulties in Iraq, there is unlikely to be much resistance to this plan in official Washington. But it puts the cart before the horse and deserves serious questioning on several levels.

Figuring out how large a military the United States needed was relatively simple during the Cold War. The United States had a reasonably accurate idea of how many troops the Soviet-backed Warsaw Pact numbered, and how many U.S. troops would be needed (in addition to Western European troops) to prevent a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. Other conflicts and commitments complicated the calculation, but it was reasonably safe to assume that planning mostly for conventional warfare – which in that time included the possibility of nuclear war as a remote possibility but anticipated little or nothing in the way of guerilla or unconventional warfare – was sufficient.

The threats America faces in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks are more diffuse, and a military response is not always appropriate. The questions that need to be asked before deciding how big the military should be are seldom considered.

What is U.S. foreign policy going to be once the Iraq war winds down – assuming, perhaps foolishly, that the United States does not plan to have 100,000-plus troops in Iraq for years to come? Will the United States consider it a duty to intervene wherever there is a potentially destabilizing conflict or the threat of one? Are U.S. leaders contemplating military action against Iran? Does the United States plan to be the policeman of the world or just the sheriff?

Are commitments made a half-century ago or more still binding – meaning, does the United States still need to keep 30,000 or more troops in South Korea, 30,000 in Japan and Okinawa and about 100,000 in Europe? Will America revert to a more “humble” foreign policy as candidate George W. Bush suggested was appropriate when he first ran for office? Will the United States want to send troops to places like Darfur if they are available?

Until such questions are debated fully it is impossible to think intelligently about an appropriate size for the U.S. military.

Increasing the size of the military, even over the next five years, will not be easy, especially if the United States wants to maintain high quality in the current force. As Charles Pena, a military analyst and senior fellow with the Independent Institute, told me, “the military is already having a hard time just keeping the current force in place.” The Army and Marines met their recruiting goals for 2006-2007. But in fiscal 2006 nearly 4 percent of Army recruits – the maximum allowed under current guidelines – scored below certain levels on aptitude tests and were classified as Category 4.

According to the Army, every additional 10,000 troops cost about $1.2 billion a year. Will that kind of money really buy us more security, and can the taxpayers afford it?

Until such questions are thoroughly debated, it would be wise to hold off on increasing the size of the military.

The Iraq war was a war of choice, not necessity, in that even if Saddam Hussein had possessed WMDs his regime did not pose an imminent threat to the United States. It has not turned out as initially advertised and nobody seems to know how to end it gracefully.

Americans will volunteer when they believe the country is in danger. It will be more difficult in the future to get them to volunteer for wars of choice, where the survival – or even the core interests – of the country is not at stake. Before we can make significant progress in eliminating the wholesale use of stop-loss orders, and before we can begin to figure out how large the military should be, we need to have a more fundamental discussion about what American foreign policy should be in the wake of the disaster that is the war in Iraq.

I would argue, of course, for a more modest policy that contemplates virtually no military intervention into disputes and problems beyond our borders. I suspect many Americans, who really don’t have the desire or the mind-set to maintain a global empire, would agree, so I would be more than happy to debate with those who believe a more expansive policy is appropriate. But so far that fundamental discussion has not even surfaced in official deliberations. It is to our interest to find ways to make sure that happens, before we expand the military.

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Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).