Battle Lines Forming Over Bush, Gore

Thursday, August 31st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — George W. Bush's claim that the next president will inherit a military ``in decline'' is producing a political tug of war among former and present Pentagon commanders.

Al Gore's campaign has put forth Defense Secretary William Cohen, the only Republican in President Clinton's Cabinet, and former Clinton Defense Secretary William Perry to dispute the assertions.

Retired Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the presidency of Bush's father, joined the fray Wednesday.

``Readiness has declined, investment has declined, maintenance has declined, training has declined,'' Powell said in an interview.

He stood by declarations by both Bush, the Republican presidential nominee, and running mate Dick Cheney — the defense secretary under Bush's father — that the Clinton administration is responsible for a weakened and overextended military.

In a speech Wednesday to an international-relations group in Atlanta, Cheney accused President Clinton and Gore, the Democratic presidential nominee, of ``eight years of neglect and misplaced priorities.''

Cheney said troops that were victorious in the Persian Gulf War have been hurt by spending cuts ``far beyond any careful weighing of the national interest.''

Powell sought to reinforce Cheney, his partner in overseeing the 1991 operation.

``I was with Cheney. I know everything he's talking about. I've seen nothing with which I disagree,'' said Powell, who was made available to reporters by Bush's campaign.

Powell did concede that Bush misstated one fact when talking about Army readiness in his Aug. 3 speech accepting the GOP presidential nomination.

Bush said: ``If called on by the commander in chief today, two entire divisions of the Army would have to report ... 'Not ready for duty, sir.'''

The Pentagon and Gore's campaign complained that Bush had quoted a report that was eight months old.

``His data was a few months out of date,'' acknowledged Powell, a Republican who is widely viewed as a likely candidate for secretary of state in a Bush administration. But he insisted that, even if the Army now says all its divisions are combat-ready, ``the force is not balanced.''

Democrats point out that defense spending had been declining when Clinton took office in 1991 — from 1985, the high point of the Reagan buildup, through the elder Bush's term.

They also note that defense spending has been up sharply in the past two years under Clinton, including the biggest military pay raise in a generation.

Powell, as have other Republicans, said recent increases in defense spending were due more to the GOP-led Congress, responding to readiness complaints voiced in 1999 and again this year by the military brass, than to initiatives of the Clinton administration.

``This is not just Colin Powell coming out of the woods and saying this. All you have to do is look at their (military service chiefs) testimony,'' he said.

Cohen, the current defense secretary, earlier found himself in an awkward position.

As a Republican, he has often agreed with congressional Republicans on defense issues. But as a Cabinet member, Cohen was called upon to defend Clinton-Gore military policy after Bush's comments at the GOP convention and in a subsequent address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Cohen disputed Bush and Cheney's assertions that morale in the U.S. military is dangerously low, saying, ``As a matter of fact I think morale is increasing.'' He cited indications that the services are having more success this year meeting retention and recruiting goals.

Powell on Wednesday countered, ``It does a disservice to the men and women in uniform to suggest that they are as ready as they can be or that the right investments have been made.''

The Bush campaign has also enlisted Richard Armitage, who served in the State and Defense departments under President Bush, as a warrior in the present defense-spending battle.

Meanwhile, Perry, defense secretary in Clinton's first term, asserted on behalf of Gore's campaign that ``two-thirds of the reductions in the military'' were made by previous GOP administrations. ``I think people might be suffering from amnesia,'' he said.

Doug Hattaway, a Gore spokesman, defended the campaign's role in escalating the battle of the commanders.

``George W. Bush injected politics into the national-international security debate by falsely saying that two army divisions were not ready for combat. In fact, they are ready for combat. The U.S. military is the best trained, equipped and ready in the world,'' Hattaway said Wednesday.

John Isaacs, president of Council for a Livable World, an arms control advocacy group that follows defense issues, said the debate ``submerges serious subjects in partisan politics.''

``Unfortunately, both parties are distorting the facts and omitting key information,'' he said. ``It would be far better to conduct a rational review of current military needs for the next president.''