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The War President?

February 20, 2004

Now there’s a surprise. President Bush is going to base his reelection on the claim of being “a war president.” (His “Ownership Society” vision, which he delivered stillborn during his State of the Union address, has apparently been put on the backburner.) As he told Tim Russert on “Meet the Press” and repeated to National Guard troops in Louisiana on February 17th:

"I'm a war president. I make decisions here in the Oval Office in foreign policy matters with war on my mind. And again, I wish it wasn't true, but it is true. And the American people need to know they've got a president who sees the world the way it is. And I see dangers that exist, and it's important for us to deal with them." [Italics mine]

There’s only one problem: wartime presidents call on their citizens to sacrifice. From Lincoln (“until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword”) to Churchill (“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”) and JFK (“ask not what your country can do for you”, “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship”), true war leaders call on their people to sacrifice lives, livelihoods, personal freedom, and national treasure to bring ultimate victory in a long, painful struggle over the enemy.

When the Going Gets Tough, The Tough Go Shopping

In contrast, President Bush did not call on Americans to mobilize resources or make any sacrifices in the war on terror. Instead, in the aftermath of the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001, the President of the United States courageously and forthrightly called on the American people to “go shopping.”

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. As we’ve detailed elsewhere, Bush’s “Opt Out” philosophy encourages American citizens to turn their backs on their country, their communities, their schools and each other. As a result, Bush cannot exhort the country to make shared sacrifices abroad in the name of the common good and the public interest when his program at home tells Americans to fight it out in a Hobbesian struggle of each against all. This, combined with the administration’s staggering political cowardice, ensures that Americans will be asked to give up nothing, contribute nothing, and sacrifice nothing, except perhaps, their civil liberties.

What Would a Real "War President" Do?

Wartime presidents raise armies, funds, and resources. They ask for volunteers, and look to ordinary citizens to contribute and do without on the home front. As we’ll see, President Bush has done none of these things.

Call for National Service. George W. Bush’s wartime failings start with his silence on national service. He’s called no one to arms. In fact, he quickly revealed the cynicism of his call for volunteerism by cutting the budget of AmeriCorps, the country’s only national service organization.

But first some background. Until the first Gulf War in 1991, all major American conflicts since the Civil War saw conscription to raise the armies needed for victory. The United States has not resorted to the draft since the Vietnam War. Throughout the Cold War, the volunteer military put in place by Richard Nixon in 1973 maintained force levels of roughly 2.1 million members across all services. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, however, President George H.W. Bush oversaw reductions to roughly 1.4 million troops, with the army reduced to 10 active divisions from its previous footing of 16. Just prior to the 9/11 attacks in 2001, these force levels were facing further reductions by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as part the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) process.

Following the attacks, the administration quickly denied that a draft would be needed for the war on terror. Secretary Rumsfeld in particular stated that the military had sufficient forces available to fight two major regional conflicts, which until 9/11had been the policy of the U.S. Though the administration doctrine of preemption announced in its September 20, 2002 National Security Strategy  document would only add to the responsibilities of the American military, Rumsfeld stood by this line even after the invasion of Iraq. There would be no expansion of the armed forces, either through extended recruiting or conscription.

The result? As James Fallows details in the March 2004 issue of The Atlantic Monthly (“The Hollow Army”), the army has been stretched to the breaking point. Units, including the venerable 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions, have had units moved from Afghanistan to Iraq, and now face months to replenish men and material to regain full fighting strength. (This is sadly ironic, given candidate Bush’s false charges against the Clinton military that two whole divisions would have to report “not ready for duty, sir.”) The call up of reservists has reached unprecedented levels, with troops being told to expect at least one one-year deployment every four to five years. The Army is struggling to rotate its 130,000 troops in Iraq, units whose missions will be of indeterminate duration. One more major crisis, such as a confrontation with North Korea over its nuclear program, and the U.S. army would be strained beyond its limits.

So, the burden of defending America falls solely on our undersized volunteer military and their families. What about the home front? What does President Bush want us to do to chip in?

“Volunteer”, apparently. In his 2002 State of the Union address, the President called on “every American to commit at least two years (4,000 hours over the rest of your lifetime) to the service of your neighbors and your nation.” As the Washington Monthly noted, he went to ask for an expansion of AmeriCorps to 200,000 members under the auspices of his proposed “USA Freedom Corps.”

And what became of this clarion call from President Bush? Nothing. As Benjamin Wallace-Wells noted in the same piece (“Mourning Has Broken”):

"But those legs soon were cut out from under it. The president did send up a national service bill, and leaders of both parties had made evident their inclination to support it. But thanks to the antagonism of some House Republicans and indifference in the White House, the measure never made it to the floor of Congress. Worse, the existing AmeriCorps program has gone unauthorized in each budget since September 11, and now, in a round of cuts proposed in August by the president for 2004, faces extinction."

(For a thorough post-mortem on President Bush and national service, read “Whatever Happened to National Service?” by Richard Just.)

Pay for the War. Raising revenue is another one of the requirements for a war-fighting president. At the start of World War II, Franklin Roosevelt asked an American citizenry still grappling with the Great Depression to pay for global conflict against Germany and Japan that would be fought across two oceans. Tax rates were dramatically increased: the highest marginal rate reached 91% by 1945.

The contrast with the behavior of war president George W. Bush could not be more stark. Far from increasing taxes to raise the revenue needed to prosecute the war against terror, Bush proceeded without hesitation to implement his $1.6 trillion tax plan from the 2000 campaign. His cuts initiated major upward income redistribution to the wealthiest Americans, with the top 1% taking over 40% of all the benefits. In 2001, the tax plan, with the strong support of Alan Greenspan, was positioned as returning the nation’s surplus to the people. Over the next two years, the administration instead described it a recession fighting tool (despite the fact that most of the cuts were backloaded). The result was a massive budget deficit, estimated at $521 billion for FY05, with red ink as far as the eye can see.

Wartime deficits are not unusual. Cutting taxes during war is almost unheard of. But for this president, the unheard of is standard operating procedure. Again, this is not surprising: Bush’s small government, free market orthodoxy calls for tax cuts as its centerpiece. But his unparalleled political cowardice, his inability to ask Americans to ask for shared sacrifice, guarantees that this misguided policy will continue, especially with a similarly venal GOP Congress likely to enact his call for permanent tax cuts as called for in the 2004 State of the Union.

Unfortunately, President Bush’s cowardice goes well beyond his failure to raise the revenue to pay for the war on terror. Even more disturbing is his refusal to level with the American people about its true costs. In December 2002, the president fired Lawrence Lindsey, his chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, for presciently telling Congress that the cost of the Iraq war could reach between $100 billion and $200 billion. Congress later had no alternative but to approve the administration’s $87 billion supplemental appropriation to pay for Afghanistan and Iraq. In February 2003, U.S. Army General Eric Shinseki was rebuked by Paul Wolfowitz for claiming in Congressional testimony that the U.S. occupation of Iraq could require “hundreds of thousands” of American troops. Bush’s duplicity continues with the proposed FY 2005 budget, as the costs of the Iraqi occupation are not even included in the requested $400 billion defense department authorization.

Ask Americans to Endure Economic Privation and Foster Conservation. Real wartime leaders not only ask Americans to pay for the war, they ask them to make the sacrifices and do without in their daily lives. During the Second World War, Americans faced rationing of foodstuffs and gasoline. They were asked to limit their travel. Citizens were asked to dig deep to purchase war bonds. Just as important for national unity and morale, Americans were asked to save and recycle key war material including tires, cooking oils and fats, just to name a few.

The results of this total mobilization of the American home front were unparalleled: the Axis powers were overwhelmed by American armies that were the best equipped and supplied in history. And the American people, the “Greatest Generation”, experienced a unity at home that has been unmatched before or after.

Fast forward to 2001. Admittedly, the principal similarity to FDR’s America is that the nation was united in responding to a sneak attack that killed thousands on American territory. There was no need to mobilize millions of troops, hoard scarce materials, or convert civilian industry to military use. And yet, President Bush could ask nothing more of Americans than that they go about their business and go shopping.

Look now at George W. Bush’s America during the war on terror. Clearly, a critical American domestic and foreign policy goal must now be energy independence. The United States must be free from OPEC economic extortion. In particular, America cannot be beholden to the Saudis, and must have the flexibility to reposition the U.S. forces that are such a visible irritant to Islamic sensibilities.

President Bush, of course, ignored this golden opportunity to ask Americans to conserve and tighten their belts to achieve this strategic national goal. His energy plan, conceived by Vice President Cheney in secret only served to reward producers, asked for no conservation measures, and provided for minimal investment in alternative fuel sources. His administration even refused to back increasing fuel efficiency targets (a stand only now showing some signs of movement in the face of public pressure).

Accept American Casualties. If there was ever a time since VJ Day when the American people were prepared to accept large numbers of U.S. military casualties to defeat a dangerous enemy, the aftermath of 9/11 was it. The Bush administration, however, launched the October 2001 assault on Afghanistan on the cheap. U.S. force levels in country did not exceed 10,000 troops, clearly insufficient for such a large, mountainous country. Bush and Rumsfeld chose instead to have dubious proxies fight for us, with the Northern Alliance and a host of self-serving tribal warlords taking on the Taliban.

Two and half years later, the results are disconcerting, to say the least. While the Taliban was quickly toppled, Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar remain at large. Large numbers of Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters escaped capture and confrontation, and continue to threaten American troops and the Karzai government from their bases in the murky border along the Pakistani frontier. The lack of American or NATO troops on the ground means that security cannot be provided outside Kabul; regional and tribal warlords remain in control. As a result, reconstruction is slowed, stability elusive, and long-term success far from certain.

Democratic Wartime Leadership in 2004

Looking ahead, Democrats must do more than highlight the obvious failings of George W. Bush, the “war president.” Whether they supported the war in Iraq or not, Democrats must bring stability to Iraq and defeat Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network. Whether it’s John Kerry or John Edwards, the next Democratic president must create the conditions to prosecute and win a global struggle with military, diplomatic, and economic components.

  1. Maintain Defense Spending Levels. The new realities of American security will require high levels of defense spending for the foreseeable future. Democrats must resist the temptation to trim a Pentagon budget that has reached roughly $400 billion. This will be necessary in part to fund the Army expansion described below.

  1. Expand the Standing Army. As described above, U.S. forces and the families that support them are being stretched to the breaking point. Senator John Kerry’s proposal to boost the U.S. Army by at least two divisions is a good place to start.
  1. Create a “Home Guard.” As we’ve elaborated in “The New American Bargain”, there is no better way to raise the needed forces in a democracy, substantively and symbolically, than through national service. Clearly, there is no political support in either party for conscription for our wars abroad. The same cannot be said of domestic security at home. The Federal government should create a Home Guard, drafting at least 250,000 Americans between the ages of 19 and 22 for homeland defense. Funded and managed by the Department of Homeland Security and assigned to relevant federal and state agencies (such as the Coast Guard, Transportation Safety Administration, Immigration, and Border Patrol), the members of the Home Guard would police borders, guard ports, staff airport checkpoints (replacing the TSA personnel), and monitor major events, energy facilities and transportation hubs.
  1. Set Energy Independence by 2020 as a National Goal. The Democratic president should implement a national security energy policy; call it the USA Energy Act. A USA Energy Act would focus on energy independence to both limit the U.S. vulnerability to economic dislocations due to OPEC action and provide greater freedom of action in foreign policy in the Middle East. This would include subsidies and a venture fund for alternative fuel sources. Just as important, it would include critical conservation measures, including conservation tax credits for businesses, a fuel price floor, and a fuel consumption surcharge on purchases of new, low efficiency vehicles.
  1. Rollback the Bush Tax Plan. The Bush tax cuts are fiscally irresponsible, perverse subsidies to the wealthy that are morally unacceptable, especially in wartime. The next Democratic president should rollback the Bush tax cuts for households with incomes over $200,000. At the same time, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) should be increased, perhaps as high as $50,000. The plans of John Kerry and Wesley Clark are good starting points.

About

Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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