Breaking! Our Armed Forces

05/25/2011 12:00 pm ET

For decades, conservatives have railed against liberals as "weak on defense," content to let U.S. military readiness decline to dangerous levels. Such accusations over the nation's military readiness, in personnel as well as equipment, have proven pivotal in numerous elections. Many progressives still have to learn how to express their views on security in more compelling ways, but we can no longer let conservatives remain unchallenged on their security credentials.

In light of this week's announced escalation, conservatives must now be challenged to prove where their loyalties lie, with Bush or with our armed forces, breaking under the strain of his failed policies.

As George Lakoff and the Rockridge Institute explored in our recent book Thinking Points (Chapter 6), conservatives regard security as the use of force, while progressives view security as protection. To make sure that our ports, our infrastructure, and our troops are protected is part of the progressive understanding of security as protection. Bush's policies take the conservative conception of security to its absurd conclusion. It emphasizes the use of force to challenge threats and potential threats to the exclusion of other tools, such as diplomacy. Secretary of State Rice or other officials are dispatched to shore up support for military action, not to broker political compromises that would make military action unnecessary. Even providing adequate body armor, part of the progressive concept of protection as security, is not a priority to this administration.

We have seen the consequences of the conservative reliance on the projection of force to provide security. As Bush sends over 20,000 more soldiers to face an impossible mission, we have every reason to fear worse consequences to come. Given these stakes, no conservative should be permitted to make the claim to being "strong on defense" unchallenged unless he or she promptly repudiates the Bush administration policies that threaten our armed forces.

More than any foreign enemy could, Bush is breaking our armed forces, and we must not shy away from this accurate framing. Consider a few of the many ways that Bush and his conservative supporters are actively breaking our armed forces:

  • Even before Bush's latest plans for escalation of U.S. troop levels amid Iraq's civil war and provocative moves toward Iran, the increasing strain on America's armed forces was apparent. In July 2006, it was revealed that two-thirds of the active U.S. Army was classified officially as "not ready for combat."
  • In October 2006, retired General Barry McCaffrey warned, "The United States Army is stumbling toward the edge of a cliff. It's starting to unravel." A new international crisis, he suggested, could lead it past the breaking point
  • To provide the troop numbers Bush demands, the Pentagon has been forced to abandon its limit on the time that those in the National Guard or Reserves can be required to serve on active duty. A citizen-soldier may now be deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan for up to two years at a time, as many times as needed.
  • After the many failures of Donald Rumsfeld, the replacement that Bush offers our armed forces, is Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, whose recent admissions include, "I would confess I'm no expert on Iraq" and the statement that he is "no expert on military matters." In Congressional testimony, Gates also said it would be a "mistake" to offer an exit strategy, something that Bush called a necessity when he first ran for president.
  • In contrast to the advice of the Iraq Study Group to engage in diplomacy with Iraq's neighbors, Bush instead issued a warning to Syria and Iran, which was soon followed by a raid on an Iranian consulate in Irbil. As Juan Cole has observed, such provocative moves could easily lead to aggressive military actions against Iran. That would clearly constitute an additional international crisis of the scale that McCaffrey warned could break our armed forces.

Bush has pushed our armed forces, our nation, and the Middle East to the brink of a precipice. To date, he has enjoyed the full support of conservatives who proclaim themselves patriotic defenders of our military and our country. With Bush's latest plans for escalation in Iraq and confrontation of Iran, we have both the responsibility and the opportunity to confront those who have enabled Bush to pursue this destructive path. Reject Bush or stand complicit with him in breaking our armed forces?

We have seen some conservative politicians distance themselves from Bush's latest plan already, but mild criticism is not enough. Bush's policies damage our armed forces far more than any terrorist attack has; he should be regarded accordingly. For conservatives to continue to abet Bush's disastrous schemes without facing the consequences is, in Bush's words, "unacceptable." If progressives hit this point hard and conservatives fail to rethink their definition of security as the projection of force, then progressives could have the opportunity to capture the mantle of strength for a generation.