The decision to start calling up Marine Corps reservists who have already served their active-duty obligation but are still subject to being called back is a strong indicator that the war in Iraq is not going very well—and that our leaders believe U.S. troops will be required in significant numbers for at least a year and probably more. This does not bode well for overall military preparedness, especially if some other hot spot in the world seems to require military attention.

Marines typically sign up for an eight-year service obligation, with four years on active duty and four years in the reserves, either with a unit that drills monthly or as part of the “individual ready reserve.” Reservists can be called back to active duty at any time. Some Marine reservists were called up in the first days of the invasion of Iraq, but this is the first time since then.

The ready reserve was designed to provide a pool of people who could be called in times of national emergency. But the Iraq war has required first the U.S. Army and now the Marines to use the ready reserve to fill perceived holes in the combat forces. The Army has called ready reservists and also used “stop-loss orders” to require enlistees to stay on active duty beyond the time for which they had originally signed up.

Such policies are not exactly a “back door draft,” as some critics have called them. Those who enlist in our volunteer military accept these conditions when they sign up. Being called up from the reserves may be inconvenient and disruptive (as well as potentially life-threatening), but it’s part of an existing agreement.

Nonetheless, an increasing reliance on reservists and stop-loss orders suggests serious miscalculation and perhaps strategic confusion at the highest military and civilian levels. Whether our leaders and their supporters really believed their own propaganda about Iraq being a"cakewalk" from which democratic institutions would arise once Saddam was out of power, they certainly didn’t foresee the intensity of the insurgency verging on civil war that Iraq has become.

As Ivan Eland, director of the center for Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute told us, “George W. Bush has not just stretched the military, he has come close to snapping it.”

Once a reasonably graceful way is found to reduce our commitment in Iraq, we need to devise a more modest and realistic foreign policy.