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CAMPAIGN 2000

Military Spirit, Readiness Flagging Badly, Bush Says

Politics: Texas governor says 'something was amiss' in armed forces, blames Gore and Clinton. He sharply rejects criticism of his missile defense plan.

May 31, 2000|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DENVER — Texas Gov. George W. Bush, using the nation's oldest VFW post as a backdrop, told an audience of war veterans Tuesday that under the Clinton-Gore administration the morale and readiness of the American military has fallen off dangerously.

During a round-table discussion with veterans and Colorado politicians, Bush charged "something was amiss" in the military and criticized President Clinton for over-deploying American troops and Vice President Al Gore for presiding over seven years of poor military management.

Bush, who last week was criticized for his proposal to create a national ballistic missile defense system, reiterated the need for a strong, well-funded military to carry out America's role as a "peacemaker, not a peacekeeper."

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee also brushed off Defense Secretary William S. Cohen's criticism of his recent defense proposals and declined Cohen's offer of a Pentagon tour to better inform his views, calling the invitation politically motivated.

"I think the briefing I got" from retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney; and former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger "was substantial," Bush said sharply, referring to his foreign policy and military advisors. "These are leaders with a proven track record. I call on my opponent not to allow this administration to politicize matters of defense."

Flanked by Colorado's Republican Gov. Bill Owens and other GOP officials, Bush faced a rapt audience at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 1, founded in 1899. He energetically reproached what he termed Gore's lack of support of the armed forces and offered a litany of examples of poor military stewardship by the administration.

"My opponent, who is no stranger to exaggeration, boasts on his Web site that he has been intimately involved in the best-managed build-down in American military history," said Bush, who reminded the audience that he is the commander in chief of the Texas National Guard. Bush went on:

"He also calls for a policy of forward engagement of the military. But I want the people of Colorado and America to consider the results of seven years of the vice president's management: U.S. troops are over-deployed, underpaid and undertrained. Entire Army divisions are not prepared for war. Military recruiting fell thousands sort of its goal and 6,000 United States troops are on food stamps. Al Gore says that qualifies him for a promotion. No. The Clinton-Gore record cries out for a new sign on the Pentagon that says, 'Under new management.' "

Gore spokesman Douglas Hattaway replied: "Gov. Bush can talk about readiness all he wants, but he clearly isn't ready to lead. U.S. military experts say his irresponsible position on missile defense could lead to a new arms race. With all the complex issues we face, the next leader of the free world should not be going through on-the-job training."

Bush, who Tuesday launched a five-state swing though the West, chose to speak on themes that resonate well in a region that supports gun rights and favors a strong military. In many Southwestern states, military bases are a region's largest employer. Bush pounded the theme of military morale and reeled off a string of statistics that he said illustrate the decline.

"I know many of you are concerned like I am at the state of our military," Bush said. "Under this current administration, the morale is dangerously low. Defense spending as a percentage of the gross national product is the lowest it has been since prior to World War II.

"The United States Air Force readiness for combat has fallen to its lowest level in 15 years. Only 65% of Air Force combat units are operating at the highest level of readiness.

"Last November, the Army rated two of its 10 divisions as unprepared for war. Of the remaining eight divisions, several were downgraded and none achieved the highest level of readiness. Army recruiting fell 6,000 soldiers short last year, while the Air Force missed its target by more than 1,700 airmen."

Bush also criticized the administration for sending regular Army personnel on open-ended peacekeeping missions that drag on for years, keeping servicemen and women from their families, further eroding morale.

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