Long before they were clamoring for more troops in Iraq—30,000, 50,000, even 80,000 in Frederick Kagan’s fondest imaginings—neoconservatives needed to swell the ranks of the American military to accomplish their global mission.


Now the Bush administration has granted their wish. The latest defense budget requests $715 billion for fiscal year 2008—bloated enough that the president’s $50 billion to begin expanding the Army and Marine Corps seems comparatively temperate.


It’s not. By this blueprint, the temporary increase of 30,000 Army personnel approved in January 2004 will become permanent. Bush then proposes adding another 35,000 troops over a five-year period, 7,000 each year, bringing total Army “end strength” to 547,000 in 2012. The Marine Corps, 180,000 strong today, will add 22,000 to its ranks.


Democrats eager to ensure that their newfound opposition to the Iraq War doesn’t tarnish their national security credentials can’t wait to vote yea. During a January hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, Missouri Democrat Ike Skelton congratulated himself: “Every time I had a chance to say, ‘We need more Army troops, more Marines,’ I said it. … This increase is a smart policy. I’m more than pleased to say, better late than never.” Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, grudgingly praised the president for “realiz[ing] the need for increasing the size of the armed forces,” but was quick to note, “this is where the Democrats have been for two years.”

The think-tank community adds an enthusiastic second. In January 2005, the Project for a New American Century published an open letter to congressional leaders calling for “at least 25,000 troops each year over the next several years.” The statement was signed by foreign-policy luminaries from across the spectrum from Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute to The New Republic’s Peter Beinart to AEI’s Danielle Pletka.


But as it was in Iraq, the bipartisan consensus is again wrong. Incrementally expanding ground forces won’t extricate us from the Baghdad bramble, it costs too much—far more over the long-term than the $12.1 billion included in the president’s budget—and it reflects a flawed conception of the nature of the threats we will likely face in the future. Advocates for a larger Army assume that all of the military’s current missions are essential and that we must embark on many more. A better approach than arguing that we have too few troops to do all that we are doing would be to ask whether we should be doing all of these things in the first place.


It’s tempting to assume that pouring troops into Iraq will rescue our failed policy. But by the time they are recruited, trained, exercised, and deployed, President Bush will be out office, and whoever moves into the White House on Jan. 21, 2009, will not want American troops to remain in Iraq indefinitely. As Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin noted, “it is important that we understand exactly what these additional personnel are needed for, in the long term, that was not foreseen in the Quadrennial Defense Review submitted a year ago that rejected such increases. Do we intend to stay in Iraq for years to come? Does the administration think the ‘long war’ with terrorism is going to be won with large ground forces operating in foreign nations?”


Levin’s concerns are well-placed. Expansion will cost $95 billion from FY 2008-12, and Gordon Adams, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, estimates that it will add another $15-20 billion each year after that. More soldiers need more helmets, uniforms, boots, and food, airplanes, helicopters, and trucks to get them to a fight, not to mention rifles and bullets once they get there.


If the troops are not going to salvage our sinking fortunes in Iraq, what would be this larger force’s mission? We seem to be growing the Army without any clear sense of what we expect it to do. If we need more troops to conduct a war in Iran, Pakistan, or some other country, there is serious doubt that the American people would support such an endeavor and even more doubt we could prevail, as Iraq attests.


No nation is foolish enough to fight the United States using conventional means. To the extent that we need a deterrent against other nation-states, our massive nuclear arsenal in Air Force missile silos and U.S. Navy submarines is more than sufficient. Our conventional military dominance has encouraged potential adversaries to fight us in unconventional ways, however, and our national security strategy must adapt accordingly. We learned that, belatedly, on 9/11.

Additional ground troops are of little use in combating a terrorist organization like al-Qaeda. Counterterrorism is not a personnel-intensive endeavor—the people involved rarely wear uniforms. The most successful operations rely on timely intelligence, effective co-operation with foreign militaries, and the integration of law enforcement, diplomacy, foreign assistance, and financial intervention—not the application of blunt military force. The plot to destroy airliners over the Atlantic, for example, was foiled by British law-enforcement personnel, working in conjunction with authorities in the U.S. and Pakistan. Of the 14 high-value al-Qaeda targets moved in September from once-secret CIA prisons to Guantanamo Bay, not a single one was captured by U.S. military personnel. In the most recent case to attract widespread international attention, Jainal Antel Sali, Jr., (aka Abu Solaiman) and Khadafi Janjalani, two leaders of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist organization, were shot and killed by government security forces in the Philippines. Even when U.S. military assets are instrumental—as in the bombing that killed Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi in Iraq or the Predator-drone attack that killed Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, al-Qaeda’s chief operative in Yemen and a suspect in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole—such strikes were made possible by timely intelligence derived from non-military sources.


Relying on large concentrations of conventional troops to accomplish what should be surgical missions is likely to increase the terrorist threat. As University of Chicago professor Robert Pape noted in a paper for the Cato Institute: “every suicide terrorist campaign since 1980 has been waged for defensive control of territory, to establish self-determination for a community facing the presence of foreign combat forces.” If more U.S. ground troops are stationed abroad—especially in predominantly Muslim countries—al-Qaeda and other Islamist terrorist organizations will feed on the resentment our presence generates to grow their ranks.


Even Paul Wolfowitz understood the utility of removing foreign troops from Muslim lands. In his February 2003 congressional testimony, he conceded that resentment over the stationing of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia had been “Osama bin Laden’s principal recruiting device.” Looking ahead to the post-Hussein period, Wolfowitz implied that regime change would enable the United States to withdraw troops from the region: “I can’t imagine anyone here wanting to spend another $30 billion to be there for another 12 years to continue helping recruit terrorists.”


Yet that is precisely what our long-term presence in Iraq has done. The National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, leaked to the media in September 2006, stated that the U.S. military presence there has served as a rallying point for Muslim radicals. And al-Qaeda, according to a letter intercepted by the U.S. military, considers the American troop presence to be a boon to its cause. An expanded military would give us all the tools needed to fumble our way into another strategic disaster.


No one disputes that our military is stressed, but the Army’s problems did not begin in 2003. The first Bush and Clinton administrations reduced the size of the military by roughly 40 percent after the end of the Cold War, but this smaller military has been used more times and in more places in the 15 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall than it was throughout 45 years of confrontation with the Soviet Union. Our troops have borne the brunt of this mismatch between means and ends.


A comprehensive approach to right-sizing the military must look at both the supply side—the numbers of troops, planes, and ships—but also at the demand side—where and when this military should be sent to fight.


Even the most powerful country in the world, measured both in terms of our military might and our economic vitality, must make choices. Our military is second-to-none, and our men and women in uniform are well-trained, extremely qualified, and highly motivated. But they cannot be everywhere, and they cannot do everything. We must be willing to evaluate each mission according to a crucial set of criteria: Is it vital to our national security? Have we exhausted all available alternatives? Does it have a reasonable chance of achieving its stated objective at an acceptable cost?

For the past decade, we have asked much of our soldiers, and they have responded honorably. But the American Armed Forces are under indisputable strain, and adding tens of thousands to their ranks offers no relief. More troops are not the answer. A more judicious use of these troops is. And unless our political leaders rethink their attitude toward the use of force abroad, they will wreck the finest military in history.
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Christopher Preble is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and a founding member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy.