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United States is unprepared for war on a global scale

By Kevin Matthews

posted September 22, 2006

“As veterans, you have seen this kind of enemy before. They’re successors to fascists, to Nazis, to communists, and other totalitarians of the 20th century.”
— Pres. G.W. Bush to the 88th annual American Legion National Convention, Aug. 31

Even before smoke cleared from the World Trade Center and the Pentagon five years ago, 9/11 was being called this generation’s Pearl Harbor. And, indeed, since that day, comparisons have been drawn between this nation’s struggle in World War II and the inelegantly named “Global War on Terror” — or “GWOT.”

You’ll hear that comparison a lot between now and November’s mid-term elections, something clearly signaled by the president in his address to the American Legion. But this campaign strategy raises a question the administration would like to avoid. If GWOT is the modern equivalent of World War II, why has Bush failed to mobilize the country for war?

Think about it. Unless you have served in the military, what have you been called upon to do to help defend this country since 9/11?

In 1940, Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill told his people that he had nothing to offer but “blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” After 9/11, Bush told us to go shopping.

This raises three other questions that should be put to every candidate, Democrat or Republican, who supports Bush’s handling of the war on terror — questions at the heart of this year’s elections:

— Why has this administration and Congress failed not merely to reverse the Bush tax cuts, but to significantly increase taxation to pay for this struggle?

In World War II, the president and Congress raised money needed to battle the nation’s enemies, in part so that future generations would not have to bear the burden. Now, jump forward to GWOT. While the Bush administration continues to push through tax cuts, it hides the cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars by resorting to “supplemental” appropriations, which are not counted as part of the annual budget deficits.

This bill will have to be paid sooner or later, and the cost will be enormous. In June, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) calculated that in fiscal year 2005 military operations in Afghanistan cost $1.3 billion per month. The cost of the Iraq War was substantially higher — $6.4 billion per month. Those are conservative estimates, by the way. According to the CRS, the combined cost of both wars in fiscal year 2006 will average out to $8 billion per month. And there is no end in sight.

— Why has this administration failed to launch a new Manhattan Project to develop energy alternatives so that we never again will be held hostage by an oil embargo?

In early 2003, Bush partisans like Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox News, boasted that the “greatest thing” that would come out of an invasion of Iraq “would be $20 a barrel for oil.” Instead, war-related instability has helped push the price to over $70 a barrel.

Add to that the tensions that have been raised by Iran’s determination to become a nuclear power and it’s not hard to envision oil topping $100 a barrel with results that would cripple the U.S. economy.

Even if that does not happen, it is long past time for this country to regain its energy independence. Strides were made in that direction under Pres. Jimmy Carter, but a collapse of world oil prices combined with opposition by the Reagan administration to undo these advances. If the threat posed by Islamic extremists is as serious as Bush claims, allowing this situation to continue is simply reckless.

Here the lessons of World War II are instructive. Early in the war, the U.S.’s rubber supply was cut off by Japan. Washington banned any use of rubber that was not essential to the war effort and, with industry, developed synthetic rubber to see the country to victory. On another front, the Manhattan Project created the world’s first atomic bombs leading, afterward, to the peaceful use of nuclear power.

The point is that this nation can work miracles when mobilized — which it clearly is not, today. And that leads to the most important question:

— Why has this administration failed to bring back the draft?

In his American Legion speech, Bush warned: “If we give up the fight in the streets of Baghdad, we will face the terrorists in the streets of our own cities.” His problem is that his actions do not match his rhetoric.

As matters stand, the open-ended commitment in Iraq is breaking the back of our all-volunteer military. While the Pentagon claims it has forces sufficient to carry out its missions, this is manifestly untrue — a point driven home by last month’s announcement that the Marine Corps has to reactivate members of its Individual Ready Reserve.

In any case, in a war that is vital to America’s security, why should the few defend the many? If, as Bush told the American Legion, we are involved in “the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century,” he and his supporters owe it to voters to explain why they have not mobilized the nation for war. If it is not true, then comparing GWOT with World War II is cynicism of the worst kind.

And voters should know that, too.

Kevin Matthews teaches history at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. This article was first published by The Charleston Gazette. It is reprinted with permission.