Courtesy Reuters

Keeping America's Military Edge


Last fall's presidential campaign rarely ventured into discussions of national defense. When it did, these all-too-brief excursions mostly concerned setting priorities among the almost numberless tasks that should be taken up by the world's leading power. That meant answering several questions: Will China and Russia pose future threats, or can they be cooperatively integrated into the international system? Is preparing to fight two major wars in Korea and the Persian Gulf still the appropriate organizing principle for U.S. forces and budgets? When and how should the United States participate in peacekeeping and conflict prevention?

Such debates focused on the ends of U.S. foreign and defense policy. Although important, they left unanswered an equally fundamental question: whether the United States has the means to implement the policies it decides on. And this lapse was unfortunate, for there is mounting evidence that the necessary means may in fact be wanting. The U.S. national security establishment is becoming deficient, not so much in deciding what to do, as in the ability to get it done. As a result, the new president and his administration may well find their ability to translate policy decisions into results sharply limited. Reversing this trend will depend on the management of means.

At one point, the campaign did touch briefly on means -- namely, when the two sides debated the "readiness" of the U.S. military. George W. Bush charged that U.S. forces were not ready for their current missions. Al Gore replied that the Pentagon was spending a larger fraction of its budget on training and exercises -- the two factors that contribute most directly to readiness -- than ever before. But whatever the merits of their arguments, both sides overlooked a key issue. The "readiness" about which they were arguing was that of today's forces to meet today's threats. A more fruitful debate would have focused on a longer-term version of readiness and a wider view of the

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