Trigger finger

Bush slams Clinton for a weak military. The military begs to differ.

By Joshua Micah Marshall
Published August 7, 2000 3:23PM (EDT)

"If called on by the commander in chief today, two entire divisions of the Army would have to report, 'Not ready for duty, sir.'"
-- Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush, Aug. 3, 2000

One of the primary pillars of Bush's campaign is his contention that the Clinton-Gore administration has let military readiness and morale dip to dangerously low levels.

Over the course of last week's Republican Convention, a number of speakers made charges about Clinton administration defense policy that were deceptive at best. For instance, retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf cited the fact that "6,300 military families are now eligible for food stamps" as a sign of administration neglect. He neglected to mention that many more were eligible for food stamps during the Gulf War in 1990. He also asserted that "as of 1999, the number of fighting Army divisions ready for war had shrunk to less than half of what they were before Desert Storm." He failed to note that this was a result not of Clinton administration neglect but of the post-Cold War military restructuring that was organized by two men you may also have heard bashing the Clinton administration's defense policies last week: Dick Cheney and Colin Powell.

Both of Schwarzkopf's statements were stingy with the truth, but not exactly what you could call lies.

Bush took all this a step further when he told the convention audience that two divisions were currently "not ready for duty." As a factual matter, the statement is false, as the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Hugh Shelton, was at pains to point out the following day.

Last October the commanders of the 1st Infantry Division and the 10th Mountain Division did temporarily downgrade their divisions' readiness. But Bush was guilty of more than being off by a few months. His clear intent was to create an image of jeeps with fenders dangling, tanks and helicopters ground to a halt for a lack of spare parts and so forth.

But the reason those two divisions had their readiness downgraded was not because they were unfit for duty or lacked equipment. It was because portions of each division were on peacekeeping duty in Bosnia and Kosovo. The military's definition of readiness has to do with a particular division's ability to go into combat immediately in the hypothetical case of two major theater conflicts breaking out simultaneously. The commanders doubted their ability to quickly extricate their troops from their positions in the Balkans.

Bush compounded the problem by refusing to come clean after Shelton made his remarks. In an interview, Bush told CNN: "Last November, there was a report that said two divisions were not ready for combat. If the Army, in fact, changes its tune from that report ... then they need to let the country know. I am amazed that they would put out a statement right after our convention. I'm curious why it took them this long to say they were combat-ready after a report last November said they weren't."

This kind of answer approaches the "It depends on what the definition of 'is' is" category. The Army didn't "change its tune"; Bush just got his facts wrong. And he would have done well to admit it.

The fact that even a temporary downgrading of military readiness was caused by the Kosovo and Bosnia operations does point up a very legitimate defense policy issue: While America no longer faces a large-scale threat like the Soviet Union, its downsized military has been called into action repeatedly for various peacekeeping duties. In a sense, it's doing more with less. That's a real issue -- a fact the administration has implicitly conceded by calling for increased military spending in the current budget.

Bush has every right to take up this issue. But the question of military readiness is about more than troop strength and spare parts. It's also about credibility, specifically the president's credibility. And for Bush, playing fast and loose with the facts is not a good start.

Joshua Micah Marshall

Joshua Micah Marshall, a Salon contributing writer, writes Talking Points Memo.

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