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'Churning' Makes a Mess of the Military

Defense: 'Liberal hawks' say preserving human rights is expensive.

May 08, 2000|RUTH WEDGWOOD | Ruth Wedgwood is a professor of international law at Yale University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is a member of the national security study group for the Hart-Rudman commission

It is hard to imagine Warren Rudman, Gary Hart and Newt Gingrich fitting in the same room, even in retirement. Their grand careers came from three points of the compass. The former Republican senator from New Hampshire is famous for framing the budget-cutting Gramm-Rudman Act. The former Democratic senator from Colorado still summons the memory of a pre-Clinton liberalism. And the mike-popping loquaciousness and nimble wit of the former Republican House speaker from Georgia has shown that there is life after Congress.

Different as they are, these three have agreed on a national security reform agenda for the next president. Together with colleagues such as former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) and retired NATO Atlantic Commander Adm. Harry Train, the three reported last month on a joint national security commission two years into its work. The commission is directed by former Air Force Gen. Charles Boyd.

The conclusions were frank. In the season of our Kosovo discontent, with troubling photos from Kosovska Mitrovica, the Hart-Rudman commission--formally called the Commission on National Security for the 21st Century--states plainly that the Pentagon and Congress have dodged the problems of peacekeeping.

Both are guilty of what Gingrich called "churning." To mount missions such as Kosovo, the Pentagon takes soldiers from combat billets, assigns them to police tasks in which they have limited background and at the end of a peacekeeping stint sends them straight back into training to repair lapsed combat specialty skills.

It's like never getting out of spring training. Though some soldiers and officers value real-life deployments, even in a police mission, other soldiers feel like they've been cut from the majors to play triple-A ball. Lagging reenlistment rates suggest that the problem of a high-paced "operations tempo" and interrupted military career paths is worth attention.

Why not, the commission asks, just "start with reality"? The Pentagon may not like peacekeeping, but it is entirely predictable that American presidents of either party will choose to get involved in police missions.

Leave combat soldiers to their chosen task, and recruit and train a specialized force for rapid interventions, with troops who want to be in "operations other than war." This is not a slouch's job. Peacekeeping requires a military constabulary akin to the Italian Carabinieri, trained in languages, negotiation, investigation and crowd control as well as the use of intimidating firepower. As the British might say, colonial governance is still a sticky wicket, even when it's multilateral.

It's a question of protecting combat strength as well as doing peacekeeping better. The ability to fight two "major theater wars" must be more than a paper strategy, with the unsteady course of Pyongyang and Baghdad.

That leads to the second brave suggestion of the Hart-Rudman commission: American defense spending may have to rise. It's true that we spend more on defense than all of our European allies combined. It's also true that the end of the Cold War has been fiscally disappointing.

But there is no free lunch, even in peacekeeping, and stealing lunch money from strategic readiness is not the answer. The bipartisan consensus of the commission frames a new middle ground of "liberal hawks." Using military force to preserve human rights will cost money.

Other commission recommendations also warrant debate, including federal support on a broader scale for basic science research and education, strengthening international institutions and taking a more engaging tone toward allies, as well as meeting threats to domestic security through an integrated command structure for federal and state agencies. But perhaps the most optimistic note comes from the unified voice of the commission. It is, as Hamilton noted, a consensus document on our common interests, negotiated "at a time when the political dialogue . . . is so partisan, so divisive, so discouraging."

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