By Rick Maze
House Democrats unveiled a 12-page plan on Thursday that they hope to use to shows they can be as tough on defense as Republicans.
The document, seven months in the making, includes a call for adding 100,000 troops to the active-duty force, paying more recruiting and retention benefits, finishing the modernization of military weapons and stepping up nonproliferation efforts for weapons of mass destruction.
While some Democrats have called for a quick withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, the leadership plan calls for adding troops, increasing efforts to train Iraqi security forces and trying to get more allies involved without any premature pullouts.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the House Democratic Whip who announced the new strategy, said public opinion polls show veterans — even those who agree with Democrats on many domestic policy issues — question whether Democrats are willing to support a strong national security policy.
“Our opponents, of course, have preyed upon this perception and fostered it,” he said. “We believe it is important that the American people know that Democrats in the House are intensely focues on this nation’s security. We want them to know that Democrats will not hesitate to use force, when necessary, to protect our people and our country.”
House Democrats tried a similar initiative before the 2004 election, only to end up losing seats to Republicans, largely because of the redrawing of congressional district boundaries in Texas.
Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee and a key advisor to Democrat leaders on defense issues, said he thinks one big difference between Democrats and Republicans on defense issues is that Democrats are more concerned about personnel issues. That is why the 100,000 increase in personnel is a big part of the Democrat’s plan, he said.
“We have the finest military the world has known, yet it is a military under enormous strain,” he said. “We need a permanent increase in end strength, which this document calls for, and we need creative ways of enticing service and retention. This may mean more bonuses or it may mean shorter enlistment times.”
Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., who has tried for three years to increase Army and Marine Corps personnel levels, said current conditions “threaten to break our all-volunteer force.”
Troops “are overstretched and overburdened,” she said. “They are routinely deployed for back-to-back rotations and stop-loss orders extend their stays. I know soldiers who have seen multiple tours, and if they serve and survive, they are told to turn around and head back into the fight.
“Increasing the size of the military is essential,” she said. “This step will reduce burdens on men and women who sacrifice their time, livelihood and families. It will also keep our promise to soldiers and their families.”
Hoyer said the Democrats’ national security plan was timed to come out on the fourth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and that is only coincidence it was released at a time when President Bush’s standing in public opinion polls is falling both for the prolonged Iraq deployments and his administration’s handling of Gulf Coast hurricane relief.
“The inept federal response to Hurrican Katrina two weeks ago — almost four years to the day after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 — has only heightened concern regarding this nation’s ability to respond to another catastrophe,” Hoyer said.
In addition to the personnel and Iraq proposals, the report says Democrats have a short-term goal of capturing or killing terrorists “bent on attacking Americans and others” and a longer-term goal of using education and economic pressure to try to eliminate terrorist breeding grounds.
A stronger homeland border-security plan, improved intelligence capabilities, better ties with allies and getting the United Nations to be responsible for post-conflict reconstruction also are part of the plan.