ONE OF THE least noticed but most intriguing elements of the State of the Union speech occurred near the end, when President Bush called for the recruitment of 92,000 more soldiers and Marines and for the creation of a Civilian Reserve Corps that “would ease the burden on the armed forces by allowing us to hire civilians with critical skills to serve on missions abroad when America needs them.”
Never mind that there is much less here than meets the eye. Included in Bush’s recruitment math are 30,000 Army troops already in the pipeline, so the increase is really only 62,000, not 92,000 -- and that number won’t be available for five years. A larger, faster increase is needed to relieve the strain on our overstretched armed forces.
As for the Civilian Reserve Corps, the administration has no detailed plans to recruit, train or deploy abroad the kind of experts we need in such fields as law, finance, sanitation and balloting. Nor does it have the money. Odds are that this bright idea will suffer the same fate as another plan devised by the State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization, which asked for $100 million from Congress for contingency planning last year and got zip.
Grossly inadequate as they are, these proposals are nevertheless welcome because they represent a long-overdue attempt by the Bush administration to correct some of the institutional limitations that have severely hampered American nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
To further address our shortcomings, Bush should take a number of other steps.
For a start, he should open the ranks of the armed forces to recruits who are not citizens or green card holders. This would be the fastest way to increase force size (as well as knowledge of other languages and cultures), and it could be accomplished with the stroke of a pen. Under a law passed last year, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates can waive the citizenship requirement if he “determines that such enlistment is vital to the national interest.” To assuage concerns about turning over the defense of our nation to foreigners, Gates could direct that they make up no more than, say, 20% of the total.
Paying for the extra soldiers we need won’t be cheap. Even though the defense budget has grown from $302 billion in 2001 to $432 billion this year, the armed forces are facing major equipment shortfalls that need to be addressed. Supplemental appropriations bills have been covering these costs so far, but to avoid having to pare major procurement programs, Bush will need to increase the defense budget some more.
Congress may balk, but such increases are feasible because, even though we’re at war, we’re still spending only 3.3% of GDP on defense -- a very low figure by historical standards.
IT WILL TAKE more than money to overcome the challenges we face. It also will require substantial reorganization. The president needs to create a Department of Peace, perhaps built out of a revamped Agency for International Development, so that we can be better prepared for the aftermath of future military operations than we were in Iraq. He needs to re-create the defunct U.S. Information Agency, which was folded into the State Department in 1999, to wage the battle of ideas against Islamist extremists. He needs to create a federal police force, possibly within the U.S. Marshals Service, that can be dispatched to enforce the law in lawless lands. He needs to beef up the “expeditionary” capacity in other civilian branches of government, ranging from the Treasury to the Agriculture Department, so that they can augment the efforts of our soldiers.
And he needs to better integrate the civilian and military branches of government so that they can function more smoothly together than they have in Afghanistan or Iraq. (The Center for Strategic and International Studies has come up with some useful proposals for aligning interagency operations, plans and budgets under a strengthened National Security Council.)
These ideas may sound overly ambitious for the final two years of an administration mired in major difficulties. But remember that in his second term, despite the Iran-Contra scandal, Ronald Reagan was able to simplify the tax code and streamline the military chain of command -- major reforms -- by working with a Democratic Congress. There could be similar bipartisan cooperation today, under a compelling slogan: No More Iraqs. If we’re going to do nation building in the future (and we are -- witness calls for intervention in Somalia and Sudan), we have to get it right.