Tuesday, February 19, 2008

It's Time to Admit That the Iraq War Has Weakened the Military

The Iraq war has stretched the U.S. military dangerously thin. No, that's not me talking, but the belief of 88 percent of U.S. military officers, according to a recent survey reported by CNN.

I fully understand that reasonable minds can differ, and that as long as there are two parties vying for power, there will be disagreements over the best way to solve problems (or to choose which problems most need solving). But it seems to me that, although I wrote an entire article defending the idea of being partisan, once the cold, hard facts on an issue emerge, it's time to accept the reality and move on, regardless of one's position when the original policy was being debated. Let the reasonable minds differ on how to address the existing problem, not whether the problem actually exists.

In 2003, President Bush decided to invade Iraq. Since then, there has been a debate as to whether the invasion was a good idea or not. I think that discussion is perfectly reasonable when debating future policy, as well in a campaign, where American citizens have a right to judge the candidates based on their stances on the issues.

But it would seem to me that whether you support the war or not, it would defy all logic to say that it hasn't put an immense strain on the military. Just watching the services struggle with extending tours, sending soldiers back for multiple tours of duty, and loosening requirements for new recruits, it is apparent that there are staffing issues in the armed forces.

And yet, Bush and the Republicans, when discussing foreign policy, seem to act as if the military might of the U.S. is limitless. They talk of keeping America strong and safe and of actively fighting terrorists, and yet there is never a discussion of the very real reality that the U.S. involvement in Iraq has required such a large commitment of the country's military resources that we virtually have no ability to engage in any other military operation.

Or, to put it more colloquially, we are standing with our pants down, and the whole world knows it. So much for a strong, safe America.

The survey backs the idea that the administration's poor planning and unreasonable expectations for post-war Iraq caused the difficulties the country currently faces. But to me, what was even more compelling for the future of the country, is the dire state of our armed forces thanks to the war in Iraq.

More than half of the officers agreed that the military had been weakened by extended deployments and lower standards, and that the care of wounded soldiers was substandard.
Well more than half, 60 percent, flat out think the U.S. military is weaker than it was five years ago. Eighty percent of the respondents feel that it is unreasonable to expect the U.S. to fight another war while engaged in Iraq.

The survey reveals that the officers believe that Iraq has distracted the U.S. from threats by China and Iran. On a scale of one to ten, the respondents rated the military's readiness in Iran as a 4.7, the Taiwan Strait as a 4.9, Syria as a 5.1, and North Korea as a 4.7. These numbers should concern all Americans, regardless of party affiliation and position on the war.

The officers didn't seem real happy with the civilians they have to answer to and work with, either. Sixty-six percent of them felt that elected leaders were uninformed about military matters.

I'm sure most Democrats (and I plead guilty to this charge) looked at these survey responses and had an initial reaction of, "See! We were right! Bush has made us weaker, not stronger." But when my cooler head prevailed, I realized that the bigger issue is how we, as a country, act next, knowing that we are overextended militarily because of Iraq. And that realization led me to lament that such planning is impossible when the country's leader, or the Republican trying to succeed him, won't even acknowledge that there is a problem to begin with.

It's time to acknowledge that the war in Iraq has exhausted the resources of the military, and every candidate, Democratic and Republican alike, should articulate his or her plan for building the forces back up. If John McCain wants to keep us in Iraq for 100 years, he should tell us how he is going to do it without jeopardizing the ability of the country to defend itself or conduct military operations elsewhere in the world.

As I've said, I'm all for acting partisan when it means standing up for the ideals of the party. Presumably, both parties want a strong military. According to our officers, we're not as strong as we were. So it's time to put aside the subterfuge and address the problem. It's time to move the debate from the wisdom of invading to Iraq to military readiness. Otherwise, the next president risks being an American version of Baghdad Bob, telling the world about the strength of his country's army in the face of a reality that is far more bleak.

After all, it's hard to claim the country is strong and ready when 88 percent of officers think we are stretched too thin. When it comes to the facts on the ground, reasonable minds should not differ, even when seeking office.