IT WAS REASSURING to hear Gov. George W. Bush embrace, at least in broad rhetoric, a United States that is militarily strong and engaged in the world. The United States needs "strong alliances, expanding trade and confident diplomacy," the governor said in the prepared text of his Thursday address at The Citadel. The "foundation of our peace," he added, is "a strong, capable and modern military." All this may seem obvious. But such a worldview can't be taken for granted in either political party nowadays.
But if the governor's policy address on military affairs was a reasonable first crack at the subject, it also raised more questions than it answered. Mr. Bush correctly pointed out that spending on defense, when calculated as a percentage of the national economy, is low right now, while demands put on the military remain high. But how Mr. Bush will resolve this mismatch was less clear.
He implied that President Clinton has made a habit of sending U.S. troops on "vague, aimless and endless deployments," deployments to which Mr. Bush would put a stop. But which ones? Most U.S. troops stationed abroad are in Japan, South Korea and Western Europe -- and Mr. Bush insisted he wouldn't tamper with "longstanding commitments we have made to our allies." That leaves relatively small deployments of peacekeeping troops in Bosnia and Kosovo. Would Mr. Bush withdraw those? He supported NATO's military campaign in Kosovo; it would seem penny-foolish to squander the peace now. "What is our goal, can it be met, and when do we leave?" Mr. Bush wants to know. The first two questions are fair; the answer to the third should be so obvious -- "When our goal is met" -- that Mr. Bush shouldn't have to ask.
Even if he pulled the troops from Kosovo and Bosnia, and even the 200 or so from East Timor, Mr. Bush wouldn't do much to relieve what he calls "an overstretched military." So does he favor an expanded force -- and larger budget? Again, it's not clear. He would spend an extra $1 billion on salaries and about $5 billion more per year on weapons research, he said. These aren't inconsequential sums, but in a $270 billion annual budget they're not all that much, either -- not enough to make up the huge shortfalls the Pentagon already foresees, let alone pay for the new research Mr. Bush favors. Does he in fact believe that spending as a share of GNP is too low? This would be the time to make the case.
Mr. Bush also called for a total review of what he sees as an outdated military structure. There has been an abundance of such reviews, but they haven't led to all that much change. If Mr. Bush can do more, that would be welcome. With its nuclear-missile submarines and cumbersome armored divisions, the military may remain better suited to Cold War scenarios than to military missions of the future.
But when Mr. Bush says he wants to "skip a generation of technology" to build a more advanced force, he raises more questions again. Would he really want to be commander in chief, facing what is already a dangerous world, during the "skipped" generation? The sad fact is that the military has both to prepare for the future and to be ready to fight today. How Mr. Bush would pay for present and future capability remains a fit subject for future addresses.