The two presidential candidates recently swapped salvos on the state of the U.S. military. Governor George Bush declared, “The next president will inherit a military in decline.” Vice President Al Gore shot back, “Our military is the strongest and the best in the entire world.” Then the squabble degenerated into a debate over whether two of the Army’s 10 divisions were ready to fight. To date, the debate on national security issues in the campaign has been predictably vacuous and will probably result in a bidding war to see who can throw the most cash at the Pentagon.

Republicans have always had the reputation of being the party that supports a strong national defense. Predictably, Bush is trying to take advantage of that aura to paint Gore and the Democrats as weak on national security and to hide his own minimal experience in the field. Gore will start the auction by promising an even greater largesse for the Pentagon than the increases in defense spending he has advocated to date.

But what is the reality? Al Gore was making an understatement when he called the U.S. military the best in the world. U.S. forces have bone-crushing dominance over any other military on the planet--including the large, but hollow Russian forces and an antiquated Chinese military that is modernizing only slowly. Despite the post-Cold War cuts in the U.S. defense budget, the United States accounts for about one-third of all military spending in the world and spends equal to the combined defense spending of the next seven counties. The next best militaries on the planet--those of our allies--are afraid of falling so far behind U.S. forces that they can no longer operate with them.

The Democrats are also correct that Bush has selective amnesia on those defense cuts. Since the height of the Reagan defense build-up, the Republicans have been responsible for cuts that dwarf those of the Democrats. The defense budget declined from $448 billion (all figures in fiscal year 2001 dollars) in 1985 to $334 billion in the senior Bush’’s last budget--a drop of $114 billion. For the last five years, during the Clinton-Gore administration, the budget has been approximately $300 billion--a net decrease of only about $34 billion. In fact, the Clinton-Gore administration and the Republican Congress have begun to increase defense spending again.

Yet George Bush is correct when he cites growing problems with readiness in the military--shortages of spare parts and training, problems with recruitment and retention of personnel, and low morale among the troops. Bush is also right when he argues that the Clinton-Gore administration has stretched the force to its limits. By 1999, the administration has deployed U.S. forces abroad at a record-setting pace of 48 peace enforcement and combat missions. Most of the “pockets of unreadiness” in an otherwise dominant military are caused by those furious and far-flung deployments, which rapidly wear out equipment and people.

Bush correctly notes that many such deployments are not required for U.S. national security. But he is suspiciously vague on which deployments, if any, he would cut back and his criteria for determining whether to intervene overseas with U.S. forces. Also, he criticizes the state of the U.S. military, but fails to justify maintaining a substantial percentage of U.S. forces at the razor’’s edge of readiness in the more benign post-Cold War threat environment.

In short, a bipartisan consensus exists among the presidential candidates to maintain an overextended foreign policy combined with at least some increases in defense budgets. No matter which candidate is elected, the military is likely to be stretched too thin. That unfortunate situation could be remedied by a thorough and honest review of the threats (minimal) that foreign militaries pose to the United States in a post-Cold War world and the consequent pruning of excessive U.S. commitments abroad. If unnecessary commitments were eliminated, the already bloated U.S. military budget could be reduced significantly without excessively stressing the armed forces and their personnel. But the pabulum in the campaign that passes for a debate on defense has focused on some very small trees--whether two Army divisions are ready to fight--rather than the excessive thickness of the forest--profligate U.S. intervention overseas and the huge defense budgets needed to carry them out.