Why the National Guard?

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

PRESIDENT BUSH'S misuse of the National Guard seems to have no bounds. Over the past several years he has stretched the force to the limit with repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, a policy that has imposed severe hardship on Guard families across the country and reduced the availability and readiness of units to handle disasters such as Hurricane Katrina. The returning forces are often stripped of equipment; more than 64,000 vehicles and other pieces of equipment were left behind in Iraq. Though the Guard has supplied a third or more of the manpower in Iraq, and no end to the war on terrorism is in sight, the administration proposed this year that its numbers be permanently reduced -- a loopy idea that all 50 state governors opposed.

Now Mr. Bush has topped even this record of mismanagement. His order deploying Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexican border does more than add another mission for a force that already is overtaxed. It also turns the National Guard into a political tool: The only coherent reasons for this operation have to do with satisfying Mr. Bush's restive conservative base or winning votes for an immigration reform measure in Congress.

The best that can be said about the Guard deployment is that it forms part of an attempt by Mr. Bush to support a more balanced immigration policy. In his speech Monday night the president rightly matched enforcement measures with a route toward legality for immigrants now in the country illegally. By using the National Guard to win over reluctant conservatives, however, the president continues a practice of overtaxing this vital force while damaging its readiness for future missions.

Disingenuously, Mr. Bush declared in his address that "we have enough Guard forces to win the war on terror, to respond to natural disasters and to help secure our border." That may be true in strictly numerical terms. But the president neglected to mention that the tens of thousands of Guard troops who will be rotated to the border over the next year will do so during their annual two- to three-week training periods. In other words, they will be deprived of time to train for war missions or natural disasters in order to drive trucks and staff desks for the Border Patrol.

Administration officials say the deployment is designed to provide such auxiliary services until civilian contractors can be brought in. So why can't the beefed-up staffing wait until the new contractors can be put in place? Is the disruption in training for dozens of Guard units in wartime really worth the benefit of an additional 6,000 personnel deployed for weeks at a time along a border that stretches 1,951 miles? Clearly not: This is a Potemkin operation, aimed more at U.S. television cameras than illegal immigrants.

Mr. Bush has already weakened the National Guard by treating it as a disposable force that can be used to compensate for a too-small Regular Army. Now he will establish an ugly precedent: tasking the Guard with a new burden for the sake of scoring political points. The institution of citizen-soldiers deserves far better.


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