Sen. John F. Kerry, sharpening his differences with President Bush on national security, accused the administration Thursday of overextending the military in Iraq and attempting to patch the problem with a “backdoor draft” that prolongs the tours of duty for thousands of soldiers.
Kerry said he would increase military ranks by 40,000 troops, in contrast to what he called a “hollow” increase of 30,000 that the Bush administration has achieved by extending tours, delaying retirements and preventing enlisted personnel from leaving the military.
The speech by the presumed Democratic presidential nominee was his third and final address on foreign policy and defense issues during an 11-day campaign swing in which he repeatedly said he would take a broader view of the war on terrorism than Bush.
Although Kerry’s speech had been long planned and focused on several military-related themes, he expressed particular concern about an Army announcement a day earlier that thousands of soldiers scheduled to leave the military would be ordered to stay.
“This has happened on the backs of the men and women who’ve already fulfilled their obligation to the armed forces and to our country,” Kerry said at the Truman Presidential Museum and Library. “And it runs counter to the traditions of an all-volunteer Army.”
Kerry cited several units that he said needed beefing up, including Special Forces, which have fought with particular success in Iraq, and military police and civil affairs contingents that he charged have been short-handed in trying to secure the peace.
Bush campaign officials scoffed at Kerry’s proposals. They said Kerry was merely parroting plans initiated by Bush for expanded U.S. forces. They also said Kerry could not be trusted to support a strong military because of his repeated votes in the Senate against weapons systems and military programs.
“He has consistently cut defense spending,” said Thomas Morris, a retired Navy admiral who took part in a conference call for the Bush campaign. “During the height of the Cold War, he voted against the MX missile and the B-1 bomber.... And he voted against the weapons systems that have helped win the war on terror.”
Kerry has spent the last week -- in speeches, a town hall meeting on bioterrorism, an airport hangar rally and a brief news conference -- painting Bush as a lone horseman in a complex world that demands allies and collaborators.
In his remarks Thursday in the swing state of Missouri, Kerry said Bush had been “obsessed” with a few rogue nations. In contrast, Kerry said that as president he would focus on “the perils of the new century -- terrorist organizations with or without ties to rogue nations and failed states.”
Despite the back-and-forth between the two campaigns, some experts said it remained unclear if a Kerry Defense Department would differ dramatically from Bush’s.
Anthony H. Cordesman, a defense and intelligence expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Bush and Kerry were “committed to middle-of-the-road defense policy, with some differences on international cooperation.”
This week’s “stop-loss orders” by the Army, however, offered at least an apparent dividing line between Bush and Kerry. The orders likely would add months to the tours of thousands of enlisted personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan and other postings.
The orders were expected to inflame tensions within the ranks and among military families, who have been expecting their loved ones to come home.
“We went into Iraq with too few troops to prevent looting and crime, to maintain security, fundamental order, to secure nearly a million tons of conventional weapons now being used against our troops,” Kerry said Thursday. “These have complicated our mission: a stable Iraq with a representative government secure in its borders, which is our goal.”
Kerry said that the burden of extended service had become increasingly great since more than half of all soldiers are married, a striking increase from the past. He said he had talked to many active-duty personnel who had told him they feared the Army was becoming too worn down and undertrained to be prepared for its next mission.
The candidate also said that thousands of National Guard members sent to Iraq would have been better off left in the U.S., where they could assist as “first responders” to any emergency.
Kerry’s pledge to increase troop strength by 40,000 was not new, but for the first time he provided details. He said he would double the military’s Special Forces, adding 3,500 active-duty and 1,400 reserve members to the elite units.
Kerry also said he would add to the number of so-called civil affairs troops, whom he described as “those who arrive on the scene after the conflict is over and help to win the peace.”
He said he would increase the ranks of military police by an unspecified number “because public order is a critical step.”
All of the new soldiers “will help relieve the strain on our troops [and] bring more of our troops home -- soldiers, guardsmen and reservists -- back to their families and get them time for the new training they need,” he said.
In a conference call with reporters, Kerry defense advisor Rand Beers said the proposals would be “revenue neutral.” While the troop expansion alone would cost between $5 billion and $8 billion annually, Beers said that would be offset by budget cuts such as “streamlining various large weapons programs and reducing expenditures on missile defense.”
Kerry did not specify how much he would cut spending on missile defenses, which Bush has promised to double.
The argument that the U.S. has not deployed enough troops to secure Iraq is justified, said Henry R. Nau, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University. But he said that Kerry should give Bush credit for assembling a force that won the initial fighting in Iraq with surprising ease.
“We have it right on fighting the war,” said Nau, who served on the National Security Council under President Reagan. “But you can’t occupy countries with the level of force we have now, so you better think about how to bring other nations in, or how to reconfigure our forces to bring in more military police and civil construction forces.”
Bush’s aides and allies predicted that in November voters would reject Kerry’s criticisms and recognize what they said was Bush’s more consistent support for the military. They noted that the president has proposed a record $402-billion Pentagon budget for the coming fiscal year, and in three years a 26% hike in defense spending, “the largest increase in the defense budget since the Reagan administration.”
Ashton Carter, an assistant secretary of Defense during the Clinton administration and a defense advisor to Kerry, said the Massachusetts senator was focused not on total defense spending but where the money goes.
Kerry proposes investments in advanced communications and information technologies, precision weapons and technology to help improve intelligence assessments.
The Bush campaign said the president already was tending to those priorities, saying that spending on research and development on new weapons had grown by 56% under him.
Throughout his campaign swing, Kerry has said he would be a commander in chief who reaches out to allies to navigate a complicated and treacherous world. He said he would have more credibility in dealing with world leaders than Bush, who only recently embraced a role for the United Nations in Iraq.
Kerry has also charged that the Bush presidency has weakened America by turning its back on international agreements designed to keep nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists and safeguard the country from a biological attack.