The big question is: How many wars can we fight with our current military forces? The issue has come to a boil because the Pentagon is keeping reserve troops in Iraq longer than it said they would have to be there.

The previous rule of thumb as to how many troops we need was how many wars we could fight at the same time.

Every president sees it differently. President Eisenhower believed nuclear weapons were enough of a deterrent to stop the Soviets and any other enemy. His slogan was "More bang for the buck."

John F. Kennedy was a 21/2-war president. He wanted us to be prepared to fight the Russians, the Chinese and some third country, like Cuba.

When China and the Soviet Union stopped talking to each other, Kennedy scaled down our military strategy to 11/2 wars -- assuming the two countries wouldn't attack us at the same time.

At the beginning of his term, Lyndon Johnson was told by his secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, that we could get by fighting 11/4wars -- the quarter being Vietnam. But before you could say Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam became a full-fledged war. So Johnson said he needed enough money to fight that war and also the one against the Soviet Union.

After Nixon made his trip to China, he thought he could get along with two wars, though there was some question about whether he could do it with a volunteer army.

President Carter came along and all his critics accused him of shortchanging the country by giving the Pentagon funds for only one war. As a former senior officer on a nuclear submarine, he said he knew more about war than most people.

President Reagan, who was known as a peacemaker, said we must prepare for a nuclear war, a conventional war, and a "protracted" war -- and still have enough armed forces to invade Grenada.

The Great Communicator also asked for money to build a "Star Wars" defense, and was so convincing that Congress gave it to him. Reagan claimed that even if his Strategic Defense Initiative didn't work, the Soviets would think it did and go bankrupt trying to duplicate it.

He was right, because the Kremlin threw out communism with the bathwater, and Reagan is still getting full credit for it.

George Bush the First decided to stop Iraq from taking over Kuwait. That was known as the Gulf War -- except the United States never laid a glove on Saddam Hussein.

Bill Clinton was not sure how many wars he wanted to get into. He was criticized for this, but he had other things on his mind.

Now we come to the current George Bush. He told his secretary of defense that he wanted the world to know the United States was not to be trifled with.

Donald Rumsfeld said he would produce a mean and lean military that could fight anywhere and anytime, and still give everyone a tax cut.

The president accepted the word of the Pentagon and based his foreign policy on war. Bush differs from other presidents in that he felt it was legal to attack the enemy before the enemy attacked us -- particularly after the CIA told Bush that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Bush told the country, "War, in the cause of peace, is no disgrace."

His plans went awry when people such as Ahmed Chalabi assured everyone that invading Iraq was a piece of cake.

Based on that and other misinformation, the Pentagon alerted all its troops and mobilized the National Guard. The invasion was obviously not a piece of cake, and to this day nobody can tell us how long our troops will remain in Iraq.

How many wars can America have at one time? God only knows.

(c) 2004, Tribune Media Services