When Vice President Dick Cheney addresses the graduating class of the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs Wednesday, he owes it to the cadets and the country to speak candidly about some critical issues that impact national security. To do less would be a disservice to the brave young men and women about to help defend us.
Many of these cadets and their brethren at West Point, Annapolis and New London will soon be in Iraq, a conflict that is sapping the military's readiness and threatens our ability to confront other pressing threats such as North Korea and Iran. Moreover, various investigations of widespread sexual harassment, intimidation and violence, along with instances of religious intolerance and bias, reveal a cadet wing in conflict over issues that go to the heart of military cohesiveness, and over the social values that are central to winning the global battle of ideas.
There are three messages that the vice president should deliver to the Class of 2005:
He should acknowledge that he has failed his own test of civilian leadership. Four years ago, he told the Air Force Academy Class of 2001, "You deserve the means to carry out the missions we give you." In his 2003 graduation speech at West Point, Cheney declared unqualified victory in Iraq. The first statement remains unfulfilled, while the second is not correct.
The Bush administration has not given the military what it needs to succeed in Iraq: a winning strategy, effective planning, sufficient forces, the right equipment and clear guidance. Cheney himself misled the country about the existence of weapons of mass destruction and links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. In its rush to war, the Bush administration did not build sufficient international support for the mission, plan for occupation, nor send enough troops with proper protection for guerilla warfare. Its disregard for the Geneva Conventions contributed to the policy confusion that produced Abu Ghraib and other prisoner abuse. As a result, the military has been transformed from the confident soldiers who entered Iraq to a highly stressed, less-prepared force that is struggling to maintain troop rotations in the face of declining recruitment and retention. Commanders in Iraq now admit that if the insurgents succeed in turning the country's Shiite and Sunni factions against each other, failure becomes an option.
Cheney should affirm the vital role that women play in today's military, and repudiate the false gender debate that disturbingly lingers within the halls of the Air Force Academy and, even more remarkably, the House of Representatives. Women are expected to make up 17.5 percent of this graduating class. Yet a recent Defense Department Inspector General survey found that roughly one-quarter of males at the Air Force Academy, none of whom were even alive in 1980 when the first women graduated, do not believe women belong there.
Where could such an attitude come from? Part of the answer might be from a literal reading of the "Bring Me Men" slogan that up until two years ago graced the façade above what is called the Battle Ramp. Or perhaps it's a lingering skepticism among graduates.
The attempts by academy leaders to change this culture have been undermined by the House Armed Services Committee. Its leaders recently attempted to insert language in an authorization bill that would restrict women from serving in support functions collocated with combat units. The Army conservatively estimated this ill-advised action would bar women from 22,000 jobs that they are already doing. Without a true front line, such language might have barred women from service in Iraq entirely.
The evolution from the hollow force of the late '70s to the sophisticated and innovative military of today could not have happened if opportunities for women had not been expanded. But there is a broader irony: If our troops went to Afghanistan to enable women to overcome the repressive practices of the Taliban, then how can we restrict women among those same troops from vital tasks that they are clearly able to perform?
The House committee was forced to back off its social reengineering project because of objections by the Pentagon and the House's only female veteran, Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., USAFA Class of 1982.
The vice president should clearly affirm the importance of religious tolerance around the world. The Air Force earlier this month launched an investigation of alleged religious proselytizing and bias within the academy. The academy should be a symbol of religious tolerance. Beneath its magnificent spires, the cadet chapel at the academy has separate Protestant and Catholic chapels, a synagogue and prayer room for cadets of various faiths. Cheney should remind the academy, the military and society – most especially conservative religious organizations based in Colorado Springs – that if we want the people of the Middle East to embrace religious pluralism, we can't tolerate evangelical jihad here at home. Cultural humiliation and violations of religious sensitivities only fuel the growing frustration and hatred against the United States. We may be winning the military engagements, but terror networks are taking advantage of our mistakes, leaving our military and our society still vulnerable to future attacks.
In short, to win the war against terror, we have to practice what we preach – something that up to now, unfortunately, has not been the vice president's strong suit.