WASHINGTON - Amid rising concern about the over-extension of U.S. military forces and the growing budget deficit, the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a neo-conservative group whose past foreign policy recommendations have often been followed by President George W. Bush, is urging Congress to add 25,000 new soldiers to U.S. ground forces each year over the next several years.
The appeal, which comes on the eve of Bush's State of the Union address, is certain to fuel the growing debate over whether Washington can afford the interventionist vision long espoused by PNAC and its highly influential founders -- that of a global ”Pax Americana” in which the U.S. military acts as the effective guarantor of international peace and security.
”The United States military is too small for the responsibilities we are asking it to assume,” said the open letter addressed to the Congressional leadership and signed by 34 defense and foreign policy analysts, mostly prominent neo-conservatives but also a smattering of retired generals and, significantly, several national defense alumni of Bill Clinton's administration.
It was published as the lead editorial in the Rupert Murdoch-owned Weekly Standard, which is edited by William Kristol, PNAC's chairman and founder.
”(O)ur national security, global peace and stability, and the defense and promotion of freedom in the post-9/11 world require a larger military force than we have today,” the letter went on, adding, ”The [Bush] administration has unfortunately resisted increasing our ground forces to the size needed to meet today's (and tomorrow's) missions and challenges.”
PNAC itself consists of a handful of people besides Kristol and PNAC's director, Gary Schmitt. Since its creation in 1997, it has acted primarily as a platform from which prominent neo-conservatives could issue policy recommendations and invite influential analysts from other ideological currents to sign on.
Thus, its founding charter, which called for a ”Reaganite policy of military strength and moral quality,” was signed mostly by neo-conservatives, such as former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz; Vice President Dick Cheney's current chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby; the current Deputy Defense Secretary, Paul Wolfowitz; and the current director for Middle East affairs on the National Security Council, Elliott Abrams.
But several individuals more closely associated with an aggressive-nationalist position, notably the current Pentagon chief, Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney, and magazine magnate, Steve Forbes, also signed, as did Gary Bauer, a leader of the U.S. Christian Right.
The signers' make-up thus presaged the three-headed coalition of hawks -- neo-conservatives, aggressive nationalists and the Christian Right -- that gained control of the Bush administration's foreign policy after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
From 1997 until Bush's election, PNAC issued a number of policy statements signed by the same or a similar cast of characters, as well as several longer reports and a book, ”Present Dangers”, that prescribed many of the policy initiatives the incoming Bush administration has since adopted.
PNAC first urged Washington to work for ”regime change” in Iraq in 1998, but, within nine days of the 9/11 attacks, the group called for a similar policy to be applied as well to the Palestinian National Authority, Syria, and Iran, if they failed to cooperate fully with the U.S. campaign against terrorism.
While strongly supportive of Bush, PNAC first began expressing some disappointment with the administration almost exactly two years ago for its failure to increase the proposed military budget from 3.4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) to something closer to 4 percent of GDP, which, it noted was still below the 4.8 percent Washington was spending in 1993, at the end of the Cold War.
Two months later, as U.S. forces launched their invasion, PNAC issued another letter expressing concern that the administration was unprepared to provide the stabilization and reconstruction process in Iraq with enough military and economic resources.
That letter, which was widely construed as an attack on Rumsfeld, was signed mostly by neo-conservatives but also included for the first time since Bush had become president a number of former senior Clinton officials, such as his deputy national security adviser, James Steinberg; a former senior Pentagon official, Walter Slocombe, and several others.
PNAC has since indicated reservations about the administration's coziness with Russia and China -- two areas where the administration has generally spurned the hawkish advice of the neo-conservatives -- but the latest letter indicates a higher level of frustration.
It is the first addressed to Congress and thus appears as a more direct challenge to the administration's reluctance to increase the defense budget. Like the 2003 letter, the new one also includes the signatures of ”liberal hawks” -- mostly the same former Clinton officials who signed the 2003 letter -- as well as neo-conservatives.
The principal target appears to be Rumsfeld, who has strongly resisted suggestions that U.S. ground forces -- which currently include almost 500,000 active-duty Army troops, more than 175,000 Marines, and a roughly equal number of reservists -- are inadequate to the tasks they face.
Rumsfeld has argued that increasing the size of U.S. ground forces will delay the military's ”transformation” into a lighter, more lethal, and more hi-tech force capable of deploying overwhelming military power to any strategic hotspot within hours. Additional and unanticipated expenses for equipping, training, and maintaining an expanded ground force will take money away from the development and deployment of new technologies.
The only way to do both is to increase the defense budget, since the price-tag for just two new divisions, totaling 34,000 soldiers, is an estimated 20 billion dollars.
But with the budget bleeding red ink as far as the eye can see, Bush would have to find new sources of revenue -- either by cutting social programs that have already been slashed, rolling back tax cuts, or imposing new taxes.
None of these alternatives is attractive, especially to many Republican lawmakers for whom the mushrooming deficit is seen increasingly as the Achilles heel of their party's current political dominance.
”We understand the dangers of continued federal deficits, and the fiscal difficulty of increasing the number of troops,” the letter reassures its readers. ”But the defense of the United States is the first priority of the government.”
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