Those who are worrying about a revived draft are in the same position as those who worried about a return to budget deficits four years ago, when President Bush began pushing through his program of tax cuts. Back then he insisted that he wouldn't drive the budget into deficit - but those who looked at the facts strongly suspected otherwise. Now he insists that he won't revive the draft. But the facts suggest that he will.
There were two reasons some of us never believed Mr. Bush's budget promises. First, his claims that his tax cuts were affordable rested on patently unrealistic budget projections. Second, his broader policy goals, including the partial privatization of Social Security - which is clearly on his agenda for a second term - would involve large costs that were not included even in those unrealistic projections. This led to the justified suspicion that his election-year promises notwithstanding, Mr. Bush would preside over a return to budget deficits.
It's exactly the same when it comes to the draft. Mr. Bush's claim that we don't need any expansion in our military is patently unrealistic; it ignores the severe stress our Army is already under. And the experience in Iraq shows that pursuing his broader foreign policy doctrine - the "Bush doctrine" of pre-emptive war - would require much larger military forces than we now have.
This leads to the justified suspicion that after the election, Mr. Bush will seek a large expansion in our military, quite possibly through a return of the draft.
Mr. Bush's assurances that this won't happen are based on a denial of reality. Last week, the Republican National Committee sent an angry, threatening letter to Rock the Vote, an organization that has been using the draft issue to mobilize young voters. "This urban myth regarding a draft has been thoroughly debunked," the letter declared, and quoted Mr. Bush: "We don't need the draft. Look, the all-volunteer Army is working."
In fact, the all-volunteer Army is under severe stress. A study commissioned by Donald Rumsfeld arrived at the same conclusion as every independent study: the U.S. has "inadequate total numbers" of troops to sustain operations at the current pace. In Iraq, the lack of sufficient soldiers to protect supply convoys, let alone pacify the country, is the root cause of incidents like the case of the reservists who refused to go on what they described as a "suicide mission."
Commanders in Iraq have asked for more troops (ignore the administration's denials) - but there are no more troops to send. The manpower shortage is so severe that training units like the famous Black Horse Regiment, which specializes in teaching other units the ways of battle, are being sent into combat. As the military expert Phillip Carter says, "This is like eating your seed corn."
Anyway, do we even have an all-volunteer Army at this point? Thousands of reservists and National Guard members are no longer serving voluntarily: they have been kept in the military past their agreed terms of enlistment by "stop loss" orders.
The administration's strategy of denial in the face of these realities was illustrated by a revealing moment during the second presidential debate. After Senator John Kerry described the stop-loss policy as a "backdoor draft," Charles Gibson, the moderator, tried to get a follow-up response from President Bush: "And with reservists being held on duty --"
At that point Mr. Bush cut Mr. Gibson off and changed the subject from the plight of the reservists to the honor of our Polish allies, ending what he obviously viewed as a dangerous line of questioning.
And during the third debate, Mr. Bush tried to minimize the issue, saying that the reservists being sent to Iraq "didn't view their service as a backdoor draft. They viewed their service as an opportunity to serve their country." In that case, why are they being forced, rather than asked, to continue that service?
The reality is that the Iraq war, which was intended to demonstrate the feasibility of the Bush doctrine, has pushed the U.S. military beyond its limits. Yet there is no sign that Mr. Bush has been chastened. By all accounts, in a second term the architects of that doctrine, like Paul Wolfowitz, would be promoted, not replaced. The only way this makes sense is if Mr. Bush is prepared to seek a much larger Army - and that means reviving the draft.
Originally published in The New York Times, 10.19.04