Kerry Needs ‘Muscle Gap’ to Run On

Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes a weekly column for the Los Angeles Times.

The daily drumbeat of disasters in Iraq isn’t helping John F. Kerry politically because he hasn’t proposed a compelling alternative. On Iraq and national security policy more broadly, he is offering an uninspired “me too” policy of “staying the course” while trying to gain more international support.

For a better approach, Kerry should emulate the man whose initials he shares. In 1960, John F. Kennedy assailed the Eisenhower administration for ignoring a supposed “missile gap” with the Soviet Union. The charge was false -- the Soviets weren’t actually ahead when it came to missiles -- but it allowed Kennedy to outflank Richard Nixon on the right and narrowly win the election.

Today we face a real shortage -- a shortage of soldiers. The Army has fallen from 18 divisions in 1991 (710,000 soldiers) to 10 today (486,000) even as its commitments have expanded exponentially. Kerry should make the “muscle gap” a centerpiece of his campaign by pledging to do what George W. Bush won’t: dramatically increase the size of the Army.


Bush is being disingenuous when he promises to give commanders in Iraq all the troops they need. The generals won’t ask for many reinforcements because they know they don’t exist. Just sustaining the current level of 135,000 troops in Iraq is proving almost impossible. Nine of the Army’s divisions are either in Iraq and Afghanistan or just returning from there. The only additional one that can be dispatched is the 3rd Infantry Division, which left Iraq less than a year ago after spearheading the drive on Baghdad.

The Defense Department has tried to address pressing needs by sending 25,000 Marines, but the Marine Corps too is seriously overstretched. If any more Marines are sent, commitments in Haiti, South Korea and elsewhere may suffer.

We are also relying heavily on National Guard and reserve units that were never intended for such long-term deployments overseas. Overusing them could lead to a recruitment and retention crisis.

After stubbornly denying that more troops are needed, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld implicitly conceded the point by allowing the Army to temporarily add 30,000 personnel over the next few years, mainly by delaying the discharge of soldiers. He is also trying to move soldiers from desk jobs to front-line units. These are Band-Aid solutions for the serious wounds that Bush’s policies have inflicted upon the armed forces.

Four years ago, Dick Cheney said: “What the Clinton-Gore administration has done is to shortchange the military, continue to impose significant burdens on them and not made the kind of investments that need to be made. The military is in trouble today.” That may or may not have been true in 2000. It’s definitely true today.

This leaves an opening for Kerry. He has already pledged to increase the military by 40,000, but that’s not nearly enough to meet all of our commitments. Just as Bill Clinton promised in 1992 to add 100,000 police officers, so Kerry should promise to add 100,000 soldiers. This would produce about 2 1/2 divisions of combat power (50,000 soldiers) along with a lot of necessary support personnel.

Such an increase won’t be cheap, but it’s hardly unaffordable. To help defray expenses, Kerry could eliminate costly weapons programs, like the F/A-22 fighter and the Virginia-class submarine, that aren’t needed to fight terrorists and guerrillas. This may not cover the entire bill, however, because the Congressional Budget Office estimates that each new division would cost $9 billion to create and $3 billion annually to operate. And we still need to replace aging military equipment, like 40-year-old B-52 bombers.

There is no getting around the fact that we have to spend more to fight the war on terrorism. We are spending less than 4% of our gross domestic product on the military; JFK spent about 9%, Ronald Reagan about 6%. It’s hard to see how we can afford to stint on defense, because the dangers we face today are, in many ways, more immediate than those of the 1960s or 1980s.

In making this argument, Kerry will, of course, face some credibility problems. The Bush campaign is already clobbering him for voting to cut defense spending in the past. That makes it all the more imperative for Kerry to turn the “muscle gap” into a major campaign issue.

Constantly reminding voters of what he did in Vietnam more than 30 years ago isn’t going to convince them that Kerry is serious about defending the nation in the future. By campaigning on a hawkish plan to expand the military, he just may make the electorate forget about his dovish votes in Congress.