The Defense Department on Wednesday urged the President to declare a national emergency, which would allow as many as a million citizen-soldiers to be ordered to active duty for as long as two years.
The Pentagon’s announcement that the provision is “in the works” underscored the Bush Administration’s resolve to lead the nation into a war if Iraq does not leave Kuwait.
In addition, in another blunt warning that the United States is preparing for hostilities, the White House issued an executive order giving the Defense Department priority for many U.S. goods and services for use in Operation Desert Shield.
If approved by the President, the declaration of a national emergency would allow the U.S. military to keep on active duty about 152,000 National Guards and reservists already called up for service in the massive operation. Many of those troops were originally activated for tours of no more than 90 days and were due to return to civilian life in February.
In addition, the measure would give the Pentagon authority to call another 848,000 troops in the guards and reserves to active duty for two years, permitting a massive expansion of the U.S. presence in the Middle East.
It would be the first time since 1970 that the sweeping presidential authority has been invoked. At that time, it was used to mobilize National Guardsmen and reservists during a nationwide postal strike.
The Pentagon’s recommendation for declaring a national emergency came just hours after Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz emerged from a meeting saying they had not found a diplomatic solution to the Persian Gulf crisis.
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney announced that the provision was “in the works” just moments after President Bush declared he was discouraged about chances for a diplomatic solution. While Cheney denied that the Pentagon would use the full measure of the provision, Pentagon officials said that further call-ups are certain for the guard and reserves.
“We have no intention of calling 1 million reservists, but that’s the provision that’s available for me to keep on board people with critical skills,” Cheney said at the White House.
Military experts said that the additional authority would give the Pentagon virtually a free hand to expand the U.S. force in the Middle East if fighting goes badly, or to dispatch replacements for American casualties if a war erupts.
Administration officials have consistently refused to rule out further expansion of the Mideast force, which has grown to 360,000 men and women and is planned to reach roughly 430,000 in the next two weeks.
Martin Binkin, a reserve forces specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington, called the Pentagon’s request a hedge against a protracted war in which the military might need combat casualty replacements. He also said the added troops could provide the ability to rotate soldiers who have served extended tours in the desert.
In October, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), the influential chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, urged the Administration to invoke the National Emergency declaration to ensure it had continued access to reservists specializing in jobs that are difficult to fill. Although the move had been under consideration for some time, Binkin suggested that the timing of the announcement was not coincidental.
“It’s an unambiguous symbol of the nation’s resolve,” Binkin said. “I’m just surprised it wasn’t taken earlier.”
Given the apparent failure of the talks between Baker and Aziz, this would be “an opportune time to send the stronger signal regarding military readiness. . . . It’s a logical next step, both from a psychological standpoint and a military standpoint.”
But such an action would also add to domestic jitters about the seeming inevitability of war, Binkin said.
The executive order Bush issued Wednesday, entitled “National Security Industrial Responsiveness,” gives the military first claim on a broad range of civilian products and services, from shipping to food production to construction materials.
“The United States must have the capability to rapidly mobilize its resources in the interest of national security,” Bush said.
The authority he invoked used to be available under the Defense Production Act of 1950. However, last fall, Congress failed to reauthorize the law, which in essence allowed the Pentagon to commandeer industrial and agricultural production and stake first claim on a variety of services such as transportation.
Concerned that the lapsed law could hamper the provision of material needed for Operation Desert Shield, Cheney had urged the President to take the unusual measure.