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October 21, 2004

Fear of Draft Affecting Election

by Jim Lobe

With the presidential election coming down to the wire, the possibility of a revived military draft is looming as a potentially decisive factor in the outcome.

While President George W. Bush and his fellow Republicans vehemently reject any suggestion that a draft, which was eliminated by former President Richard Nixon during the last years of the Vietnam War in the 1970s, is on the way, indications that it may have to be renewed are growing and, with Democratic challenger Senator John Kerry's help, forcing their way into the campaign.

The issue is clearly having an impact on younger voters between 18 and 29, who would naturally be the most vulnerable to any new draft. That demographic group, which was already the most pro-Kerry in the general voting population before the latest rumors and reports, is also considered the most unpredictable.

Younger voters historically have abstained from voting in greater proportions than other age groups, but, aided by special campaigns such as the star-studded Rock the Vote effort, and the recent Vote for Change tour led by superstar Bruce Springsteen, that may not hold true this year. Both campaigns have cited the military draft as reasons to come out to vote.

As noted by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, the Republican National Committee (RNC) is beginning to panic over the issue. Last week, it sent a threatening letter to Rock the Vote complaining bitterly about its use of the draft question to turn out young voters.

It came just a week after the Republican leadership of the House of Representatives hastily brought up a two-year-old Democratic proposal to reinstate the draft in order to defeat it overwhelmingly, hopefully to put the issue to rest. But because the vote was essentially meaningless in legal terms, it did not have that effect.

"This urban myth regarding the draft has been thoroughly debunked," the RNC letter to Rock the Vote said, citing Bush's continuing declarations that the "all-volunteer Army is working."

That, of course, may be his opinion, but, as noted by more than one columnist, the president has also insisted that the war in Iraq is going just fine and that the massive fiscal deficits he has piled up in his three and a half years in office can be cut in half over the next few years.

In fact, the evidence that the military is overstretched and needs significantly more manpower is growing virtually by the day.

Kerry has argued for weeks that the military has become so overstretched that the administration has resorted to a "backdoor draft" in the form of involuntary extensions of tours of duty for both career soldiers and reservists, measures that have caused rising discontent among them and their families and have reportedly contributed to declining re-enlistment rates.

Indeed, the National Guard reported just a few days ago that enlistments fell some 10 percent short of their 2004 goal.

Suggestions that a draft may once again be in the cards were boosted significantly late last month when the Defense Science Board, a panel of mainly right-wing and Republican national-security advisers to Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, concluded, "inadequate total numbers" of troops mean that the United States "cannot sustain our current and projected global stabilization commitments."

It noted that, given current plans and commitments, Washington is likely to be engaged in significant military interventions involving some stabilization function every other year, on average.

The board further found that Rumsfeld's plans for reorganizing the Army to create more combat brigades – which he has assured Congress should solve the manpower problem – were "important, but partial, steps toward enhanced stabilization operations."

The report, which the administration tried to keep under wraps, appeared to confirm the already widespread notion that U.S. forces, particularly the Army and Marines, were stretched too thin to be sustainable.

This conclusion has been bolstered as well by the growing consensus, particularly within the military, that the administration made a major strategic error by underestimating the number of troops needed for the mission in Iraq – a judgment that goes to the heart of Rumsfeld's views about military "transformation."

A major Army survey taken last spring and released this week also found that reservists and members of the National Guard were increasingly unhappy with their "military way of life," and that their readiness to go to war had "significantly declined" over the past year – a finding that put in greater context last week's refusal by one 19-man reserve unit to obey orders to carry out a dangerous supply mission in Iraq's so-called "Sunni Triangle."

That incident, which drew major attention from the U.S. press – with major newspapers editorializing at length about the overextended state of the military – has clearly added to the impression that something needs to be done.

In recent days, several newspapers have also published investigative articles that have raised serious questions regarding the repeated assurances by Rumsfeld and Bush that they have sent all of the troops that military commanders on the ground in Iraq requested.

Echoing former Army chief, Gen. Eric Shinseki, who was summarily retired for estimating the number of troops needed to stabilize post-invasion Iraq at "several hundred thousand," unnamed brass have recently been telling reporters that they also warned of the need for more troops, but were either ignored or intimidated into silence by their superiors.

The Times reported Monday that the Selective Service, which is charged with overseeing the military draft, began updating its contingency plans for the draft of doctors, nurses and other health-care workers in the event of a national emergency just last summer.

In reacting to the report, Pentagon Spokesman Larry Di Rita repeated the Bush-Rumsfeld mantra that, despite the plans, "it is the policy of this administration to oppose a military draft for any purpose whatsoever."

All of these reports, however, have contributed to the widespread impression that the military is indeed overstretched and that something will have to be done.

Democrats and some Republicans in Congress have been lobbying hard for adding as many as 40,000 troops to the Army, a proposal the administration has fiercely resisted, particularly because it once again puts in question Rumsfeld's ideas about military "transformation," which calls for doing more with far fewer troops.

Kerry, who also opposes the draft, has proposed increasing the size of the Army and of doubling the number of Special Operations Forces (SOF) while, at the same time, abandoning Bush's doctrine of "preemptive" war against countries that do not pose an imminent threat to the United States.

It is that strategic doctrine, as well as the notion that the U.S. military, rather than NATO or the United Nations, should act as the ultimate guarantor of global stability, that, in Kerry's view, is imposing impossible burdens on the armed forces.

A new, more modest, and more multilateral strategic approach, in his view, would put all of the current concerns and speculation about a military draft to rest.

Meanwhile, Bush's conviction that preemption and unilateralism are the only way to ensure U.S. security in the 21st century could well provoke a strong turnout by younger voters to preempt a military draft and turn him out of office.

(Inter Press Service)


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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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