December 17, 2004

Credibility Among Soldiers

I see the military's manpower crisis continues apace, with the Army National Guard reporting that hasn't even come close to its recruiting goals. And the problem will no doubt get worse if/when the economy picks up and unemployment falls. (If)

This seems like as good a time as any to revisit the Democratic solution on this front—to expand the active army. While I understand the view that this makes good political sense—let's show voters we liberals have bold, tough ideas about national security!—it's also worth figuring out why this isn't very popular among actual military leaders. So let's ask our generic "General on the street", shall we? (Note: I've actually heard a variation of this explanation from a real-life general.)

General on the Street realizes he's short of troops; he's not thrilled. But what happens if the Democrats get to expand the active-duty army by, say, 40,000? He'll spend the extra money training them, equipping them, housing them, supporting them, and preparing them for war and peacekeeping. That's no problem. His real concern, though, is that sooner or later, when all the conflicts taper off, those goddamn liberals are going to start writing articles in Mother Jones yapping on about a "peace dividend" and wanting to nibble away at the Pentagon's budget. Alas, it's difficult (and expensive) to reduce manpower, so he might have to do some of that, but he'll also have to start reducing funds for training, R&D, procurement. Then lo, our generic general is in a world of hurt and teeth-gnashing. Basically, generals have never trusted liberals, and in their eyes the Democrats can't credibly commit to an expansion of the military.

This might not sound like a big deal—after all, the point of Kerry's proposal was a) to make good policy, and b) convince voters that the Democrats are tough on defense. But I think it's a very big deal that the Democrats aren't taken seriously—and at points, loathed—by members of the military, especially its upper ranks. The party will never, never reach a decent "credibility" threshold on national security in the eyes of the public as long as the media can cite polls every four years claiming that service members support Republicans 3-1 or 4-1. (True, this mostly reflects the officer corps, but they have more visibility so they're the issue.) So I think it's a key issue.

I'm usually unimpressed by arguments that Clinton hurt the Democratic party, but on this issue I have to agree. "Don't ask, don't tell" was the right policy at the wrong time, and Clinton's early feud with Powell, along with his watery Defense Secretary selections, essentially pitted the party squarely against the military.

A few hawkish policy proposals won't regain this trust or credibility. Nor will mushy phrases about "supporting the troops," or pretending that (say) calls to withdraw from Iraq are really about supporting the troops. First, "the troops" do bad shit sometimes, and mindless flag-waving obscures this reality. Second, it won't work. I, for instance, could reasonably claim to be "pro-military" in some generic sense—my brother's in the Navy, I'm not a pacifist, I think American military power can be a force for good, etc. But whatever. Any military personnel who reads Mother Jones or this blog would see that I spend much of my time criticizing the occupation of Iraq (both the administrative and military components), harp on Abu Ghraib, and think missile defense and other big-ticket procurement items are bullshit. I wouldn't expect anyone in the military to think I "support" them—I'd expect a good deal of anger. So let's be honest: Weak cries from my corner about Rumsfeld and body armor will sound just like what they are—cheap opportunities to score political points.

This isn't an unbridgeable gap—but clearly some larger attitude shift is needed. Unfortunately, I have no idea how to go about it. I'm a bit wary of using ex-military personnel—Wesley Clark, or Anthony Zinni, say—as props and poster boys for the Democrats. Waving about a letter signed by thirteen generals in support of John Kerry ("see? he's tough!") strikes me as a bit disingenuous—and I don't see why anyone else wouldn’t find it disingenuous either.
-- Brad Plumer 9:50 PM || ||