Draft a Strategy, Not Youth

Filling of draft boards raises chilling Vietnam memories and need for a long-term Iraq plan

For the first time in decades, the Pentagon has begun to lay the groundwork for a potential return of the draft—at least according to a page discovered last week on the Defense Department’s web site. No doubt, a return to Vietnam-era compulsory military service would be political suicide, so not surprisingly, the Bush administration has tried to distance itself from the announcement, insisting there are absolutely no plans to ask Congress to reinstate compulsory service. Still given the apparent quagmire in Iraq, the Pentagon’s actions are not so surprising. Bringing back the draft might be unthinkable—even untenable—but the Bush administration has little by little exhausted its options in a war it should never have chosen to undertake alone in the first place.

The obscure Defense Department page, which has since been deleted, was an announcement of an effort to recruit new members to fill the many vacant seats on community draft boards nationwide—boards that have sat by idly with no function since the end of the Vietnam War. “Serve Your Community and the Nation,” the announcement urged, “If a military draft becomes necessary, approximately 2,000 Local and Appeal Boards throughout America would decide which young men... receive deferments, postponements or exemptions from military service.” An estimated 16 percent of the 21,420 draft and appeal board positions across the country are currently vacant.

While it is certain the Bush administration would never reinstate the draft in an election year (besides, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said last year he was opposed to a new draft), the Pentagon’s actions reflect the glaring urgency of the situation in Iraq. As the violence intensifies, there has been increased attention to the fact that troop levels in Iraq are grossly inadequate. Late last week, the Pentagon announced its new troop rotation plan, which calls for 50,000 additional U.S. troops in Iraq in the next several months, bringing the total level to 180,000. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has called for an additional 20,000 troops on top of the proposed increase. Even Democratic presidential candidate Wesley K. Clark, who has come out against the war, has called for an increase in deployment, arguing “An increase doesn’t mean you’re failing.”

But even as there is growing consensus that more soldiers are needed, there is also growing concern that current levels are unsustainable. In September, the Congressional Budget Office determined that without extending tours of duty beyond one year, current force levels in Iraq would have to start dropping precipitously in about five months. In line with this reality, the Pentagon’s new rotation plan relies on the idealistic hope that expanding forces now will prevent the need for a sustained U.S. presence in the spring. The Pentagon’s plan actually leads to a reduction of forces to 100,000 troops by the middle of next year.

Compulsory military service is by no means the answer to America’s predicament—not that the White House is openly arguing for it. But the U.S. does need to draft a viable long-term plan to win the peace, or its efforts at “liberation” will be deemed a mockery. For months, Bush has repeatedly failed to secure troops from its allies to aid in peacekeeping, scoffing at the possibility of giving up some control of the country in exchange for assistance. But the U.S. will soon have its back against a wall; the president must return to the U.N. and make a more authentic appeal for assistance—allowing for the possibility of relinquishing power to an international body. The U.N. has a strong track record of maintaining order in such diverse places as Namibia, El Salvador, Cambodia, eastern Slavonia, Mozambique and Cyprus. An institution Bush once wrote off as “irrelevant” may soon become his—and Iraq’s—only hope.