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Cheney Steps Up War of Words on Military 'Neglect'

Campaign: GOP vice presidential nominee criticizes readiness of troops under Clinton-Gore policies. He tells crowd, 'Help is on the way.'


ATLANTA — Dick Cheney on Wednesday lashed out at the Clinton administration for weakening the American military with cutbacks he charged have sent the nation "down the wrong road."

Cheney said the result of "eight years of neglect and misplaced priorities" is a military troubled by "serious problems of readiness, recruiting, retention and morale."

"Help is on the way," the Republican vice presidential nominee said, as the crowd of several hundred rose to its feet in applause.

Furthermore, he seemed to credit recent military successes not to Clinton but to previous administrations. "A commander-in-chief leads the military built by those who came before him. There is little that he or his Defense secretary can do to improve the force they have to deploy," Cheney said.

Cheney's speech was the most detailed of a series of criticisms about defense policy that Cheney has lodged against Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore.

Cheney, who served as Defense secretary during the Bush administration, said concern about the armed forces was one of the reasons he accepted Texas Gov. George W. Bush's invitation to join the Republican ticket.

"Strong as it is, proud as it is, our military is in one sense very fragile," he said, to an audience sprinkled with Atlanta-area veterans who got the call the day before to be on hand.

To underscore his point, Cheney quoted remarks made last year by his Democratic rival for the vice presidency, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman. At the time, Lieberman cautioned that "our military forces face readiness problems, including falling recruitment and retention in critical skill areas."

Gore campaign aides on Wednesday said Cheney's remarks were an attempt to steer attention away from issues of health care--specifically the Republicans' lack of a detailed plan to provide seniors with prescription drug benefits and protect the Medicare system.

And, as they have before when questions about military readiness were raised by Bush and Cheney, Gore's aides went on the offensive.

"By twisting facts about our military for partisan gain, Gov. Bush has demonstrated that he is not ready to be America's commander-in-chief," said Gore spokesman Douglas Hattaway. "Our military is the strongest, most capable, most ready fighting force in the world."

As for the use of Lieberman's comments, Gore-Lieberman aides said the Bush campaign's own national security advisor, Richard L. Armitage, has refuted the suggestion America's forces are not prepared.

Wednesday night, Gore, en route to Seattle on Air Force Two, told reporters: "We have the strongest military in the world by far and we reversed the declines that began in the Bush-Quayle years. And I have advocated additional steps to continue the rebuilding and strengthening to make sure it is always the best and always more than adequate."

Cheney's remarks on the issue came after a rocky week for the Republican ticket, with a continued post-Democratic convention bounce showing Gore and Lieberman pulling even or ahead of Bush and Cheney in many polls. The Bush campaign has struggled in recent days to stay "on message" with attempts to focus on education thwarted by persistent questions about Bush's health care policies--an area where Gore's advisors feel he has an advantage with voters.

As the Defense secretary under his running mate's father, Cheney brings considerable clout to the topic of military readiness. He was side-by-side with Gen. Colin L. Powell during the war in the Persian Gulf and, during his tenure at the Pentagon, also sent U.S. troops to hunt down a Panamanian dictator, to aid fleeing Haitians and to disarm Somali warlords.

He also was there for the start of a post-Cold War downsizing of the military forces, a fact he once again acknowledged in Wednesday's speech.

But he said the cuts he oversaw were "what was no longer needed and nothing more." He warned that current reductions have gone "far beyond that." And he called those decisions to go beyond the 25% downsizing he undertook a decade back as "unwise reductions whose full effect is still unseen."

Cheney said the current troop levels--1.4 million--were insufficient to meet the Pentagon's stated goal of being able to fight two major wars in two theaters in rapid succession, a standard some military experts believe may be outdated in a post-Soviet Union world. As Defense secretary, Cheney said military personnel should never drop below 1.6 million.

Cheney warned the audience that the Defense budget--about $300 billion--is "lower as a percentage of the gross national product than at any time since 1940--the year before the attack on Pearl Harbor."

He said that constructing a strong national defense takes years of planning, pointing to the buildup of military personnel in the 1980s as the backbone of military victory in Operation Desert Storm.

As for current problems, Cheney cited breaches of national security at the nuclear lab in Los Alamos, N.M., the failure of equipment causing the Marines to suspend flight operations on three aircraft in the last few days, problems hitting recruitment goals in the services and aging training centers as the Clinton-Gore legacy.

"To point out that our military has been overextended, taken for granted and neglected--that is no criticism of the military," Cheney said. "That is a criticism of a president and a vice president and the record they have built together."

Cheney is scheduled to talk about school construction at campaign stops in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., today, the final day of a three-day campaign swing.

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