President Clinton visited the Pentagon yesterday for a meeting with the military's senior commanders, who reaffirmed concerns that their readiness to fight wars is imperiled by delays in being reimbursed for unplanned operations such as the Haiti intervention.
The morning caucus included the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the military's unified theater commanders who are scattered across the globe. The generals and admirals, according to a senior Pentagon official, echoed the sentiments that Defense Secretary William J. Perry has voiced repeatedly in recent weeks -- that Congress needs to act more promptly to reimburse the defense budget for "contingencies" that are otherwise paid for by raiding training and readiness accounts.
While the administration says Congress is largely to blame for strains in readiness, congressional investigators this week leveled blame in the opposite direction. The Pentagon's strategy aiming to be ready to win two nearly simultaneous regional conflicts on the scale of the Persian Gulf War is based on "questionable" assumptions about the military's capabilities and might be unworkable, a General Accounting Office report said.
The GAO report said some officers in the theater commands have doubts, thinking the strategy "may not reflect the best approach."
But Perry told reporters yesterday, "We do not agree with the conclusions of the report." Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. John Shalikashvili issued a statement saying he and other commanders agree the two-war strategy can be carried out, provided Congress follows through with planned increases in airlift capacity and weapons improvements.
"That consensus," Shalikashvili said, "is supported by a variety of analyses, computer-driven modeling efforts and seminar war games."
Clinton has met three times previously with the unified commanders, who convene in Washington twice a year. The most recent occasion was May of last year, when the commanders went to the White House.
Yesterday, Clinton returned to the Pentagon for the first time since he visited the Joint Chiefs in September, one day before the Haiti intervention got underway.
That nation remained on the agenda yesterday. Clinton quizzed Marine Gen. John Sheehan, chief of the military's Atlantic Command, on the status of transferring the Haiti operation from the U.S. military to United Nations peacekeepers, a Pentagon official said.
Shalikashvili began the meeting, which then proceeded in round-table fashion on a review of most of the world's hot spots. Army Gen. J.H. Binford Peay, head of the Central Command, briefed on a pending operation to evacuate U.N. forces from Somalia; Army Gen. George Joulwan, head of the European Command, answered questions on Bosnia; and Adm. Richard Macke, head of the Pacific Command, gave an update on military-to-military relations with China.
The administration is pressing Congress to pass about $2.6 billion in supplemental appropriations to pay for the Haiti intervention, rescuing Cuban refugees and a military buildup in Kuwait last fall to deter aggressive actions by Iraq.
"We need to get that through as quickly as possible," Clinton said of the supplemental funding, as he arrived at the Pentagon before the meeting.
In addition, the administration wants Congress to give it more latitude in borrowing from different accounts to pay for contingency operations that happen late in the fiscal year, in order to avoid raiding readiness funds. "We've got to maintain our preparedness," Clinton said. "We've got to maintain our readiness."