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Cheney Acknowledges Defense Cuts Began on His Watch


BAKERSFIELD — Dick Cheney, the Republican vice presidential nominee, acknowledged Wednesday that military cutbacks began during the Bush administration but said further cuts under President Clinton had "gone too far."

In his first campaign appearance to showcase his background as secretary of Defense, Cheney renewed his call for a military buildup, but he also took responsibility for setting the downsizing in motion a decade ago under President Bush.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, "everybody understood" that the U.S. military had to shrink, Cheney told cadets in the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps at Bakersfield High School.

"We were victorious in the Cold War, and in the aftermath of that, we did in fact significantly reduce the overall size of the U.S. military," Cheney said. "But I think we've gone too far with it. I think we've shrunk the force now at the same time we've been adding commitments, and so we're stretched pretty thin."

He said Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican presidential nominee, would reverse the trend.

"If Gov. Bush and I are successful in our campaign, it would be our expectation to do a thorough scrub of our commitments around the world, decide which ones are really priority," he said.

Cheney's remarks came a day after Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic presidential nominee, told veterans in Milwaukee that he was "proud we finally reversed the defense cuts begun in the previous administration."

Cheney said a new Bush administration would invest in high-tech upgrades of weapons and equipment, raise military pay and improve housing and education.

Cheney appeared before the cadets on the second day of his first West Coast campaign swing. On Wednesday evening, he attended two fund-raisers near Santa Barbara for the California Republican Party's Victory 2000 Committee. Today, he and his wife, Lynne, plan to campaign in Oregon and return home to Jackson Hole, Wyo.

At the ROTC event, Cheney recounted his role as Defense secretary during the Persian Gulf War in a speech emphasizing the value of "character" in the military.

He recalled the two-man crews of Apache helicopters that he dispatched to destroy Iraq's early-warning defense systems. "In fact, the integrity of the operation depended upon those soldiers and airmen being just as effective, and just as committed, and just as dependable and reliable as anybody else up and down the chain of command."

His intent, said Gerald Parsky, chairman of the Bush-Cheney California campaign, was partly to evoke doubts about Clinton's character.

Cheney's visit to Bakersfield, a Republican stronghold, offered him the chance to voice conservative views that he has generally downplayed as Bush strives to court moderate voters. At the high school, an ROTC cadet asked Cheney about prayer in public schools.

"I do think there's an appropriate place in our public institutions and gatherings for prayer," Cheney said.

Another cadet asked him about gun control. "I'm more interested in enforcing the existing statutes than I am in adding additional restrictions that might restrain law-abiding citizens," he said.

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