President Bush’s proposal to add 92,000 troops to the Army and Marine Corps has a degree of bipartisan appeal. Advocates may believe that America’s troubles in Iraq provide reason enough to "grow" the Army and Marine Corps. But this view misconstrues both the lessons of that war and America’s true security needs.
What has been lacking in recent years is strategic wisdom, not military personnel. Any perceived shortfall in the latter derives from the former. It would be better to correct the error, than feed it more boots. Indeed, correcting it would obviate any apparent need to boost Army and Marine Corps end strength.
Certainly, boosting the Army and Marine Corps has a political utility for the President and his opponents, alike. But no one seriously contends that the initiative will relieve the stress of current Iraq deployments. Nor will it ease the strain of shipping additional troops to that country, as the President proposes. This, because any additions to Army and Marine Corps end strength must come in small increments, and it takes time to build new units. There will be no significant effect at all before 2009.
Looking down the road: the proposed additions to end strength will combine with other initiatives to dramatically increase America’s capacity to sustain protracted ground operations overseas. The other relevant initiatives include the administration’s Integrated Global Presence and Basing Strategy and various reforms aiming to increase the proportion of military personnel available for operational duties. Taken together these efforts eventually would allow the United States to comfortably deploy on a continuous basis more than 100,000 ground troops outside Europe, Japan, and Korea – while the latter locations absorb more than another 60,000 troops.
There is no manifest need for such a capability unless: (1) The United States maintains a large contingent of troops inside Iraq indefinitely, or (2) the nation aims to routinely and continuously involve 100,000 or more ground troops in regime change, foreign occupation, "nation-building", counter-insurgency, and/or stability operations.
The prospect of a long-term US troop presence in Iraq is not an idle one. Although proposals for beginning withdrawal have now become commonplace in Congress, few advocates talk about total withdrawal anytime soon – if at all.
Increasing Army and Marine Corps end strength will enable the United States to "stay the course" charted by the Bush administration in Iraq and elsewhere – indefinitely. Much as the proposed Iraq "troop surge" serves to counter a diplomatic solution to the Iraqi impasse, the proposed increase in Army and Marine Corps end strength serves as an alternative to setting a new course at the level of national security strategy.
Is "not enough boots on the ground" the chief lesson to learn from the Iraq debacle? A more critical view is that the administration’s chief failure resides not at the level of war planning, but at the level of national security strategy. The failure involves misapplying and over-relying on military instruments. It rests on the mistaken belief that the type of enterprise represented by the Iraq war – forceful regime change and coercive nation-building – is necessary to our security and practicable. This belief is a fount of unrealistic goals and impossible missions.
Minimally, the nation and its armed forces deserve an open and thorough debate on the strategic lessons of the Iraq misadventure before we start ramping up the nation’s capacity to put more boots on the ground worldwide. To foreclose this debate for reasons of political expediency is to add insult to tragedy.
Carl Conetta is co-director of the Project on Defense Alternatives(PDA). More details of the troop buildup and the analytical basis of this piece can be found in PDA Briefing Report #20