ATLANTA - The Bush administration is trying to quash a rumor that keeps cropping up in cyberspace. For several months, e-mails from an unknown source have warned that President Bush plans to reinstitute the draft if he wins a second term.
The rumor persists despite repeated denials from top-level administration figures. In Thursday's debate, President Bush declared that the U.S. military will remain an all-volunteer force. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell recently told ABC's George Stephanopoulos that "President Bush has no plans for a draft, nor is a draft needed." And Congress would just as soon debate the revival of Prohibition, since the return of the draft would be about equally popular.
So why does draft speculation have so much currency?
There are bills in the House and the Senate to revive conscription (though they lie dormant). And both John Kerry and Ralph Nader have done their share to fuel the rumor. Mr. Nader, especially, has tried for months to link Mr. Bush to a secret draft proposal. But none of that fully explains the widespread anxiety.
Fear of conscription continues to float just below the surface because so many voters understand that Mr. Bush's military plans simply don't add up. A Pentagon advisory board recently issued a report stating the patently obvious: The U.S. military won't have enough troops in the coming years to meet its continuing war and peacekeeping obligations.
It is not possible to keep nearly 140,000 troops in Iraq - as the president's oft-stated "resolve" dictates - while also continuing missions in the Balkans, following through on long-term commitments in Europe and confronting new threats in North Korea and Iran. (Some analysts have argued that the United States needs to add more troops to Iraq to provide the security needed for elections there.) Even if Mr. Bush plans to rely on diplomacy with North Korea and Iran, diplomacy needs the credible threat of military action. At the moment, the United States cannot mount that credible threat.
Already, the Bush administration's ad-hoc strategy - if it can be called a strategy - is colliding with itself. Having failed to persuade allies to send more of their troops to Iraq, the Pentagon has instituted what Mr. Kerry calls a "back-door draft" - "stop-loss" orders that prohibit retirements or transfers of active-duty troops and unusually long tours for National Guard and Reserve forces.
But that has sapped morale and threatened recruitment. The National Guard, whose "weekend warriors" have been ground down by lengthy overseas tours, doesn't expect to hit its recruiting target this year, the first time in a decade.
So senior military personnel officers have begun to call for shorter tours of duty. "All the Army leadership agrees that 12 months is too long," Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, recently told The New York Times. They also agree that the Pentagon may need to keep nearly 140,000 troops in Iraq through 2007. There is no way to accomplish both goals: keeping boots on the ground and shortening tours.
Amazingly, Mr. Bush and his aides continue to engage in a denial that borders on the pathological: The United States is winning the war on terror, everything is going swimmingly in Iraq, and, of course, the military doesn't need any more troops. Even more amazing, they've been able to get away with this strange cognitive dissonance. Mr. Bush's poll ratings go up even as Iraq melts down.
But more voters are getting the sense that something about Mr. Bush's policies just doesn't add up. They might not want to think about it. If nothing else, Mr. Bush offers certainty in an uncertain world. But you've got to tamp down a lot of doubts to hang onto that certainty.
That's why those e-mails about the draft won't go away.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.
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