Military Wreckage

Representative Charles Rangel is reintroducing legislation for a draft. He first pushed his bill in 2003 in an attempt to slow the Bush administration's rush to war. Now he's advancing conscription to provide the bodies necessary to prosecute the Bush administration's unnecessary war.

Returning to a draft would ruin the world's dominant armed forces, filling its ranks with people who don't want to serve and turning military service into a divisive political issue. Yet Rangel's proposal reflects an ugly reality: The Bush administration's disastrous intervention in Iraq -- dubious social engineering on a global scale -- already is wrecking the U.S. military. As Rangel points out, "The entire volunteer system is in danger of collapse under the weight of the burden being placed on those who are serving."

Recruiting and retention are suffering. The active forces have joined the reserves on the manpower-critical list, with both the Army and Marines failing to meet their recruiting goals for months.

Reservists are being treated as regular substitutes rather than emergency complements for the active forces. Many are serving one, two, or more years, losing jobs and businesses. Active-duty personnel are spending successive tours overseas.

Only Pentagon "stop-loss" orders, which bar personnel from leaving when their terms expire, are holding many servicemen and women in uniform. A desperate Department of Defense has even called up members of the Individual Ready Reserve, former active-duty personnel who serve in no units and receive no benefits.

The Army still hopes to make its year-end recruit objective, but only by lowering its standards. There is no simple answer, however. The problem is neither inadequate benefits nor lack of patriotism.

Rather, many young men and women, often influenced by their parents (only 25 percent now would recommend a military career, compared with 42 percent in 2003), are not enthused about risking life and limb for an increasingly dubious cause. It's one thing to go to war to preempt, or believe that one is preempting, a dangerous state seeking nuclear weapons. (Of course, the administration's manipulation of evidence against Iraq will make this case much harder to make in the future.) It's quite another thing to fight to promote "democracy," whatever that means, in a nation that has not yet developed the civil and social institutions so important for the emergence of a genuine liberal society.

The United States has achieved the obvious goals of ousting Saddam Hussein and organizing elections. Now, young Americans are dying as Iraqi politicians squabble over governmental positions and constitutional provisions.

For instance, Clifford May, head of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, says, "Failure is not an option." Of course, no one wants to see failure. But an administration that has been building fantasies in the sky should start thinking realistically about Iraq.

The first issue is the standard of success. Is it creation of a Jeffersonian democracy, meeting Western standards of political participation, protection of human rights, and government accountability?

Or is success development of a somewhat democratic, but often authoritarian, state that mistreats minorities, particularly religious minorities? Or is success establishing a stable regime run by a housebroken Hussein, who uses force to suppress dissenting ethnic, political, and religious factions?

There's no doubt that No. 1 is preferable, but it also is the most difficult to achieve. No. 2 is more likely to occur and might allow Washington to avoid too much criticism for sacrificing democratic values in its supposed war for democracy. No. 3 would be an ugly outcome, but might be the most likely outcome whenever the United States leaves.

Question No. 2 is at what cost. Of course Americans should prefer a free, democratic, and capitalist Iraq over an unfree, authoritarian, and statist Iraq. But how much treasure should be spent -- and lives sacrificed -- to reach Washington's stated goal? Failure is not an option unless failure cannot be avoided at acceptable cost.

For instance, envision the lion lying down with the lamb in Baghdad and people throwing flowers at American visitors, like was supposed to happen in 2003 after the United States invaded. But assume it will take, say, a 50-year occupation, 25,000 American deaths, a quarter-million maimed and wounded military personnel, and $3 trillion in outlays to "succeed" in this way. Would it be worth it?

Moreover, what if the continuing occupation intensified anti-American passions overseas, further encouraged terrorist recruitment, and spawned an entire generation of terrorists who knew how to defeat urban security measures, construct car bombs, escape government surveillance, and infiltrate security forces? And what if some of them decided to employ those skills outside of Iraq? What if hundreds or thousands of Westerners in general -- and Americans in particular -- ended up dying as a result?

Maybe the Iraq optimists who have been so wrong so often will be right this time. Maybe the insurgency is in its "last throes," as Vice President Dick Cheney claims. Maybe.

But there have been many supposed turning points -- the killing of Hussein's two sons, Hussein's capture, the transfer of sovereignty, the elections. Unfortunately, notes David Phillips, a State Department consultant who worked in Iraq before quitting in frustration, "At no point have any of these milestones proven to be breakthroughs."

The number of daily insurgent attacks is up from 2004. U.S. commanders say they need more troops and warn that the number of reliable Iraqi forces lags far behind official estimates.

After two years, the United States still can't protect the six-mile road between Baghdad's airport and the capital. The city of Basra has fallen under sectarian militia control. Western Iraq is ungoverned and perhaps ungovernable.

Thousands of Christians have fled to Syria. American employees, such as interpreters, are leaving due to threats against them and their families. Much of the country is unsafe for any foreigner. The vast majority of both Shia and Sunnis want the U.S. forces to leave.

But maybe this time the wild optimists will be right.

If they are not, however, Americans have to be prepared to make some tough decisions regarding Iraq. The United States can't leave tomorrow. It must begin planning to leave, however, and sooner rather than later.

First, Washington must define "success" in Iraq as a political regime that respects vital American interests, not one that represents a utopia seen only in college political-science textbooks. We want to see, and should encourage, development of a liberal political order in Iraq. But we should not make it the essential baseline of our foreign policy.

Second, the United States must weigh both costs and benefits. The primary benefit of the war with Iraq has been achieved: eliminating Saddam Hussein's regime. Improving the operation of Iraqi democracy is a laudable but not essential objective.

The costs, in contrast, continue to mount. Iraq may well be the most important recruiting tool for terrorists abroad. U.S. officials talk about the "bleed out" of terrorists active in Iraq back to their home countries, where it will be even harder to identify them.

And American casualties continue to mount -- 78 in May, the most since January. Patriotic young men and women are being killed, maimed, and wounded daily. The Iraqi election has proved to be yet another false dawn. We almost certainly have months -- or years -- of more fighting and killing ahead.

(Iraqis are dying too. Nearly 300 Iraqi security personnel were killed in May, the most ever. Another 600 died from January to April 2005, half the toll from the preceding 18 months. An incredible 800 Iraqi civilians died in bombings and shootings in May alone.)

The United States is spending $5 billion a month on the war. Attention and effort, too, are being channeled into an unproductive guerrilla war rather than planning to meet future challenges and to transform the U.S. military.

Moreover, the armed services are stretched badly, with recruitment and retention veering toward disaster. Today, America would be ill-equipped to deal with a second crisis -- say Iran or North Korea, let alone China. It has taken Washington three decades to shape a military that can quickly and decisively defeat any antagonist on earth. It has taken the Bush administration just two years to endanger the same force. And legislators like Representative Rangel want to complete the wrecking job by returning to a draft.

There are no good policy options in Iraq. But the administration must abandon the fantasies that have been driving it so far. Otherwise America will suffer a series of ever-worsening nightmares, including the possibility of conscription.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy.