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Be Careful What You Ask For . . .


Wednesday's Iraq news pretends that is is not about Iraq. As Christy posted earlier, the President yesterday told reporters that he has asked Secretary of Defense Gates to develop proposals for increasing the size of the Army and Marines to relieve the "stress" (Bush said he hasn't heard the word "breaking") our current armed forces are under and to provide sufficient forces for the long ideological war on terror. The increase could be on the order of 70,000 troops added to currently authorized levels for the Army of 512,000 and about 180,000 Marines. Recall that Congress approved increases to get us to these levels shortly after 9/11.

The New York Times reports the story just as the White House would want it: there is no explicit connection to the numerous statements from General Abizaid and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Former Secretary (and General) Colin Powell and other retired generals that it is Iraq that is breaking the Army and creating the stress. The Washington Post gets the story a little better here. But neither story makes a more important connection.

The disconnect occurs because both articles recognize that a decision today to increase overall US troop levels would require a number of years to implement, with estimates that only about 6,000 to 7,000 troops could be added each year. So this has nothing to do with all the talk of "surging" 20,000 to 30,000 (or McCain's 50,000) more troops quickly into Iraq, right? As Powell explained on Sunday's Face the Nation, any near-term surge could only come from delaying the rotation of troops currently in Iraq and speeding up the planned rotation of troops already scheduled to go to Iraq. That surge could only be sustained beyond a few months (less than a Friedman Unit) if the President required more National Guard and Reserves to reenter Iraq for 2nd and 3rd tours.

But the proposals to increase overall troop strength for the President's long term "war against terror" are very much connected to the plausibility of an immediate surge into Iraq. All you need is time and perspective. If the US had increased its overal troop levels two years ago, then today we'd have enough troops to "surge" into Iraq today. The fact that we didn't do so in 2004 leaves the nation's most senior and respected military officers forcefully and publically telling their Commander in Chief that they cannot accommodate the neocon's proposed surge without possibly breaking the Army. That telling argument resonates with the media and with the American people; it is likely the single most powerful check on the President's options for what he can do in Iraq. But suppose that check were not there?

Let's ask who has been advocating an increased level for the Army and Marines. We don't even need to check the neocons, because Jon Stewart already did that (h/t C&L). Senators McCain and Lieberman have long argued for the need to expand our armed forces for reasons similar to those the President used yesterday. They repeated that view while recently in Iraq. As for other Democrats, consider this, from the same Post and NYT articles, respectively:

Democrats have been calling for additional troops for years. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) proposed an increase of 40,000 troops during his 2004 campaign against Bush, only to be dismissed by the administration. . . .

Democrats pounced on Bush's comments. "I am glad he has realized the need for increasing the size of the armed forces . . . but this is where the Democrats have been for two years," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), the new House Democratic Caucus chairman. Kerry issued a statement calling Bush's move a "pragmatic step needed to deal with the warnings of a broken military," but he noted that he opposes increasing troops in Iraq. Even before news of Bush's interview, Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), incoming chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told reporters that the military is "bleeding" and "we have to apply the tourniquet and strengthen the forces."

And there's more:

Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday night: “I am pleased President Bush has finally recognized the need to increase the overall size of our military. I have been calling for such an expansion for several years.” But Mr. Reed, who served in the 82nd Airborne Division, warned that the battle over troop numbers was not over.

“Now that the president is asking for an increase, he needs to follow through and put the money in the budget to pay for these soldiers,” Mr. Reed said.

I suspect we can find lots of similar statements in support of increasing our overall troop levels from other prominent Democrats, including a few likely to run for President in 2008. If the President had just listened to these prominent Democrats back then, we would now have enough troops to surge into Iraq, and we wouldn't be hearing complaints from the nation's top military that doing that would break the Army or place undue burdens on the National Guard and Reserves. The President would then be free to pursue this option with much less opposition from the nation's military leaders. Why, with a large enough armed forces, we could even put a half million troops into Iraq, just as we did in Viet Nam.

If that were the case, we would be left with the remaining argument our military leaders are making against the neocon plans: no one has stated a clear, finite, and achievable military mission for the extra troops the neocons want to surge into Iraq. But the lack of a defensible mission has never stopped this Administration in the past. And it's unlikely to encourage the Democrats to ask the same question. How do I know? Because none of these Democrats has put forth a "clear, finite, and achievable mission" for the overall increased troop levels.

What we are left with is the implicit argument that if we're going to give a reckless President 150,000 troops to squander in a war we should have never fought in the first place, we're going to need more troops to fight whatever "legitimate wars" (also undefined) we face in the future. In other words, the principal argument for increasing the size of our armed forces has nothing to do with any coherent plan to deal with terrorism but instead presupposes we will always have a reckless President willing to get 150,000 or so of our best troops bogged down in some bloody, endless quagmire, and we just need to plan for that terrible waste. And these are the people who are regarded as "serious foreign policy experts."

Of course, George Bush and his even more reckless Vice President will be gone in January, 2009. But doesn't the same argument apply to President John McCain? Or President Hillary Clinton, who still will not say that her Iraq war vote was a mistake?

I do not understand why those who regard themselves as the nation's "serious foreign policy experts" think it makes sense to increase the size and lethality of our Army, and then hand the Army over to presidents who have proven to be dishonest and reckless about what they'll do with those troops, and then do what they please, without any accountability, without checks and without a clear strategy even remotely connected to America's strategic interests.

If you saw a child recklessly firing a loaded weapon, would you hand it more bullets? Or would you disarm the child? Be careful what you ask for . . .

(photo courtesy

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John has been writing for Firedoglake since 2006 or so, on whatever interests him. He has a law degree, worked as legal counsel and energy policy adviser for a state energy agency for 20 years and then as a consultant on electricity systems and markets. He's now retired, living in Massachusetts.

You can follow John on twitter: @JohnChandley