By RONALD BROWNSTEIN
LOS ANGELES TIMES
The strains on the volunteer military from the war in Iraq are now unsettling as many Republicans as Democrats -- and exposing an enduring contradiction in President Bush's agenda.
Conservative defense analysts and GOP legislative leaders are raising alarms over the pressures that Iraq is imposing on the military, especially the part-time Army National Guard and Reserve. With growing urgency, these critics argue that the Pentagon is relying too heavily on the citizen-soldiers of the Guard and reserve in Iraq because the administration has refused to enlarge the size of the full-time military enough to meet new demands.
"The problem for the United States is not imperial overstretch, it's trying to run the planet on the cheap," American Enterprise Institute fellow Tom Donnelly, a leading neoconservative defense commentator, wrote recently. Military historian Frederick W. Kagan delivered a similar indictment in The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine.
Most strikingly, House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., this month urged an increase in the active military and condemned lengthy deployments that he said were compelling Guard and reserve volunteers to effectively "serve in the permanent forces."
These dissents signal an important shift in the political weather as Bush begins his second term. Until recently, complaints about the Pentagon's personnel strategy came mostly from Democrats and a few maverick Republicans such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona. But it's a much more ominous sign for the White House when a GOP leader such as Blunt, ordinarily a loyal soldier for Bush, breaks ranks.
These warnings reflect the accumulating evidence that the grueling struggle in Iraq is stretching the reserve and active-duty components of the volunteer force.
In Iraq, tens of thousands of Guard and reserve members are serving much longer overseas missions than had been common for reservists.
About one-third of active-duty Army troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan have served a second tour of combat duty, a previously rare burden. Thousands have been presented with "stop-loss" orders that prevent them from leaving the military when their commitment is completed.
Yet the need in Iraq is so great that Lawrence J. Korb, a former assistant secretary of Defense under President Reagan, says the Pentagon may need to send some troops back for a third tour next year if the United States doesn't significantly reduce its presence by then. One senior military official recently disclosed that the Pentagon was already considering rewriting Guard and reserve rules to allow longer tours of active duty than the current 24-month maximum. That trial balloon helped trigger Blunt's unusual public complaint.
"I'm absolutely confident it would contribute to further deterioration of the Guard and reserve," he said.
Not surprisingly in this environment, the Army National Guard failed to meet its recruiting goals in 2004. And although the Army Reserve met its quota last year, it, too, has fallen short in recent months. Looking down the road, the Defense Science Board, a Pentagon advisory panel, recently concluded that the military was too small to meet the global commitments America is assuming.
The origins of these problems long precede Bush. Between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11, both major parties understandably supported reductions in the full-time force. The active-duty Army contracted by 21 percent during President George H. W. Bush's four years and another 21 percent during Bill Clinton's eight, dropping from 770,000 to 482,000 troops in all.
Overuse of part-time forces in Iraq also has its roots partly in the Pentagon's post-Vietnam War decisions to rely primarily on the Guard and reserve to provide troops for civilian functions, such as military police and engineers.
Lengthy peacekeeping deployments for reservists in Bosnia and Kosovo in the former Yugoslavia first highlighted problems with that approach, but neither the Clinton nor the current Bush administration did enough to bring that civilian expertise into the full-time force.
Now, critics ranging from Blunt to Korb to Donnelly say the Pentagon should enlarge the Army and increase the number of active-duty troops trained for nation-building activities. Blunt won't put a number yet on the increase he wants. Korb says 86,000 and Donnelly believes that even more are needed.
The problem is that every 10,000 active-duty soldiers cost the Pentagon about $1 billion a year. Blunt says Congress could fund a larger military by cutting other spending. But with Washington already confronting huge budget deficits, it's difficult to see how the United States can afford a much larger military without raising taxes, as it has done every other time the nation fought a major war.
Yet Bush is moving in the opposite direction with tax cuts that have reduced federal revenue in each of the last two years to less than 16.5 percent of gross domestic product. Taxes haven't been that low for two consecutive years in more than half a century.
Those numbers highlight the fundamental contradiction between Bush's expansive vision of America's mission to bring democracy to the Islamic world and his crimped approach to funding the government that must implement it. By failing to provide means to match his ends, Bush is violating the classic test of statecraft that columnist Walter Lippmann laid down in World War II: "bringing into balance ... the nation's commitments and the nation's power."
One way to restore equilibrium would be to retrench the nation's commitments, starting with a withdrawal from Iraq. There's little chance Bush will take that route. But neither has he been willing to adequately fund his goals.
That imbalance is forcing the burdens of his foreign policy onto soldiers who are asked to do too much because there are too few of them to share the load. The reservists too long from home and the enlisted soldiers too long under fire measure the cost of a military too small for its missions and a tax cut too large for its time.
X Brownstein is a national political correspondent for the Times.