Other Voices: Recruiters could use more help from Bush

This article originally appeared in the Dayton Daily News on May 27, 2005.

The all-volunteer army is in serious trouble. Both its active and reserve components are missing their recruiting targets by significant amounts despite lowering standards for new recruits.

The response of the Bush administration has been to hire a new advertising agency, increase the number of recruiters, become more aggressive in targeting potential recruits, and raise substantially the financial incentives and shorten the period of active duty for those willing to join the Army. Any young man or woman willing to enlist in the Army for four years can now get a $20,000 bonus, plus $70,000 for college.

While these steps may be necessary, they will not be sufficient to attract individuals of the same caliber who have volunteered for the Army during the past 25 years.

Recruiters are having such a difficult time meeting their quotas that some have begun to cut corners, allowing unqualified people to enlist. The situation became so bad that the Army took the unprecedented step of suspending recruiting for a day for a values stand-down so that the head of the Army's recruiting command could retrain his 7,500 recruiters in legal and ethical standards.

The problem that the recruiters face is not their numbers, their values, or the incentives they offer. The problem is that potential recruits and their parents know that if they join the Army, the Army Reserve, or the Army National Guard, they will be sent to Iraq. And the majority of the American people, including many who supported President George W. Bush in the last election, believe that they were misled about the reasons for, and the difficulty of, invading Iraq.

Consequently, parents of prospective recruits no longer feel that the potential gains from that conflict are worth the costs in dead and wounded that have already been paid, let alone sending more young people to die. There is evidence that even people in the military are now discouraging their own children from joining the Army.

Francis Fukuyama, a leading neoconservative thinker, summed it up well when he said that if Bush had come before the American people in October 2002 and told them that more than 1,600 ground troops would be killed, more than 13,000 wounded and that this nation would spend $300 billion so that Iraq could have an election, he would have been laughed out of the ballpark.

If Bush does not wish to leave his successor with a low-quality hollow army, of the type which existed in the late 1970s, he must get personally involved in this issue. He needs to put the same energy and commitment into this as he has in trying to reform Social Security.

He should do this by making a recruiting commercial himself. In it, the president must admit that the reasons he gave for going to war turned out not to be correct, that he overstated the dangers posed by Saddam Hussein, that he underestimated the difficulties of turning Iraq into a stable democracy, and that he alone is responsible for those mistakes.

But, because the United States overthrew that regime, this country now has a strategic and moral responsibility to ensure that Iraq becomes a peaceful stable country, which is not a threat to its neighbors or a haven for terrorists. And to accomplish this goal, he believes that the United States will need a large number of ground troops in that country for some time to come.

The president then needs to make the case of why it would be better for this country if this can be done on a volunteer basis instead of a draft and conclude by making a direct appeal to the patriotic instincts of American young men and young women. The president might repeat the message he gave to the graduates of Calvin College on May 21, "To make a difference in the world, you must be involved."

And to demonstrate that not only will young people be asked to sacrifice, he should then announce that he will ask Congress to impose a surtax on all Americans making more than $100,000 to pay for the current and future costs of this war.

By making this type of commercial, the president would be taking a page out of the playbook of Ronald Reagan. When Reagan took office in 1981, he inherited a hollow army. To save the volunteer force, the president himself made a recruiting commercial that appealed to young Americans, and when his military intervention of Lebanon turned out to be more costly than anticipated, Reagan went before the American people and took full responsibility for the mistakes that were made. He didn't blame the military commanders, as some of his supporters had urged.

If Bush does not take some dramatic actions, the problem is bound to get worse. In this fiscal year, the active-duty Army has missed its recruiting goals by ever-increasing margins. In April 2005 alone, it missed its target by more than 40 percent. The Army Guard and Reserve are in even worse shape.

This president is said by his supporters to be a man who favors bold visionary actions. Making a recruiting commercial and admitting his mistakes would be such an action.

Lawrence Korb is senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and senior advisor to the Center for Defense Information. A former Daytonian, he was assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration from 1981-85.