WASHINGTON -- How prepared are today's American armed forces to respond quickly and effectively to likely threats to U.S. security?
Gov. George W. Bush brought this important issue into the political spotlight at the Republican convention when he criticized the Clinton-Gore administration for allowing U.S. military forces to deteriorate badly during its watch. Democrats have subsequently denied the allegations and claimed that America's military has never been finer.
Where does the real truth lie?
In fact, both sides have valid evidence to support their arguments. Overall, a fair assessment must still conclude that today's U.S. armed forces are excellent -- hardly the "hollow army" that characterized the early years after the Vietnam War, as is sometimes alleged by Republican critics. Overall, the Clinton-Gore stewardship of the military has been reasonably good. But whether it has been good enough is a subjective matter that can and should be debated this summer and fall.
Republicans are right that today's military, unit for unit, is not as healthy as the military of a decade ago. Equipment on average is not quite as serviceable and is getting older, meaning that much of it will soon need replacing.
Military personnel are working harder, given deployments in places such as the Balkans and the Persian Gulf. Largely for that reason, their morale is definitely not as good as it was during the Reagan and Bush presidencies. As morale slips, recruiting as well as retention of experienced troops and officers becomes harder, placing the country's long-term ability to maintain a top-notch volunteer force in some jeopardy.
But Democrats have plenty of facts to counter with.
Today's military may not be quite as strong as the force that won Desert Storm, but it does measure up well against Ronald Reagan's military. Whether one considers training levels, equipment readiness, experience and aptitude levels of troops, or most other objective measures of preparedness, things look as good (or better) today as in 1985.
The military's performance in Balkans peacekeeping missions, Persian Gulf no-fly zone operations and last year's air war against Serbia has been simply outstanding. Recent pay raises and policy changes designed to reduce strains on troops have improved morale. Recruitment and retention are going well this year, and the services are likely to meet their year-end targets in all major areas despite competition for good people from a strong economy.
In broader terms, Democrats can also argue that the downsizing of the military undertaken under President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore -- which cut people by about 15 percent more than President George Bush had planned -- contributed to reducing the deficit and strengthening the economy. If there were downsides to such additional cuts, there were also major benefits.
Republicans can counter that a smaller force might have a hard time carrying out major wartime operations against both Iraq and North Korea at the same time, should that be needed. Yet that is a scenario they are supposed to be capable of addressing, according to current U.S. military strategy.
Meanwhile, both sides are wrestling with the question of how to address new threats to U.S. security.
Republicans tend to emphasize the need for a national missile defense against the possible acquisition of long-range ICBMs and nuclear weapons by countries like North Korea, Iran and Iraq. The Clinton/Gore administration also favors missile defense but wants to make every effort not to deploy a system that would so enrage Moscow that it would terminate cooperative U.S.-Russian programs intended to secure and downsize Russia's huge nuclear arsenal.
What is a fair net assessment of these competing claims?
Since it is at least partly a matter of political values, there is no definitive answer. But I would give the edge to the Democrats in this argument.
The bottom line is that today's U.S. military truly is outstanding, as world leaders virtually everywhere recognize, and as it has demonstrated in all-important missions throughout the 1990s. (Even in the 1993 Somalia tragedy, when 18 soldiers died in one night of fighting, troops performed well; it was the Clinton administration that made the mistakes leading to that debacle.)
Moreover, even though Governor Bush has decried the Clinton-Gore tendency to deploy forces around the world frequently, by far the most sustained and difficult deployments have been in the Persian Gulf and the Balkans. The first was begun under a Republican administration, and neither party has come up with good alternatives for how to contain Saddam Hussein.
The second has been a result of Clinton-Gore policies. But since the alternative was to let ethnic cleansing and genocide go unchecked in late 20th century Europe, right on the borders of several important U.S. allies, there was really no acceptable alternative. The Bush administration tried disengagement in 1992, and that policy failed.
Nonetheless, it is to Governor Bush's credit that he is raising these military issues. And it is largely to the credit of Republicans in Congress that the recent military pay raises have been approved. Leaving aside some of the overheated hyperbole from Philadelphia, U.S. defense policy is a good issue for this year's presidential debate, and the discussion should continue.
Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and adjunct professor at Columbia University in New York.