Military tactics are largely partisan
Although less prominent than issues such as social security and education, military readiness is a significant point of contention between the two major candidates in this year's nail-bitingly close presidential race.
This is the third in a series of Friday articles detailing the candidates' positions on major issues facing the nation and the world as the country prepares to elect a new leader on Nov. 7.
At first glance, the defense policies of Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush and Democratic nominee Al Gore appear surprisingly similar.
Both Texas Governor Bush and Vice President Gore advocate increased military spending, with a particular focus on raising the salaries of service members and refurbishing military housing.
Both emphasize the importance of new technologies in today's armed forces.
And both support some sort of national missile defense system.
These and other areas of agreement seem to support the argument that the major parties have become remarkably similar in terms of their respective agendas -- a criticism often voiced by members of oft-overlooked third parties.
Upon closer examination, however, it becomes evident that not only do differences exist between the two candidates' positions, but that these differences arise from fundamental divisions in Republican and Democratic ideologies.
While both candidates endorse a form of national missile defense, Gore supports a limited, ground-based system as part of his vision of "Forward Engagement," an overall plan to strengthen national security.
Bush, on the other hand, advocates the deployment of a large-scale national missile defense system -- not unlike President Ronald Reagan's "Strategic Defense Initiative" -- that would abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile agreement signed with the former Soviet Union in 1974.
Gore's plan would leave the treaty intact.
Bush, through his solid endorsement of the national missile defense, seeks to maintain the GOP's image of a party strong on defense -- a tactic that proved successful for Reagan in the 1980 election.
Gore, meanwhile, has also taken a stance in line with his own party's position, a more moderate approach to national security and the proliferation of nuclear weaponry.
It follows that Gore also supports the resubmission to Congress of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, an agreement with other nations to curtail the testing of nuclear weapons. Despite the endorsement by President Bill Clinton, the treaty was rejected by the Senate last year when it failed to win the approval of the Senate Republican majority.
The candidates adhere to party lines once again on the issue of homosexuals in the military. Gore supports lifting the current ban on openly gay and lesbian service members while Bush opposes such a move and instead backs the continuation of the current "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.
The issue on which both candidates have most strongly voiced their differences is the nation's current state of military readiness.
While he maintains that the U.S. military is the strongest in the world, Bush's overall assessment of the present situation is decidedly bleak.
He and his fellow Republicans contend that the Clinton administration's record of long, exhaustive peace-keeping missions have led to a strained military, lacking in equipment as well as morale.
"Overcommitted and under-resourced," was how Bush's running mate, vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney, characterized the nation's military in a recent debate.
If elected, Bush plans to conduct an immediate review of all military commitments abroad to ensure their legitimacy.
Gore supports the continued use of the Quadrennial Defense Review to help formulate defense strategy. Unlike his opponent, however, he has thus far avoided criticizing the current administration's policies in regard to overseas deployment.
In fact, apart from his assertion that the Department of Defense is in need of "streamlining," Gore -- along with his running mate, Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman -- has remained generally positive in his assessment of the condition of the U.S. military.
Of course, as a member of the current administration, Gore cannot overtly criticize the Clinton White House defense policy without raising doubts about his own performance as vice president.
Fortunately for the Democrats, there are several statistics bolstering the Clinton administration's record on defense.
According to a speech given by Deputy Secretary of Defense Rudy de Leon at a defense conference earlier this month, the current budget surplus has allowed for the largest sustained increase in defense spending in the past fifteen years.
Members of the military have received the largest pay raise since the early 1980s, and older service men and women can once again expect to retire with fifty percent of their salaries after twenty years of service.
Military enlistment is up this year, with every branch of the armed services having exceeded its active duty recruiting goals.
These relatively recent accomplishments still do not deter opponents from attacking Clinton-Gore defense policies, particularly Reform Party presidential nominee Pat Buchanan.
On his web site, Buchanan blasts the administration for reductions in both personnel and equipment.
Buchanan also takes a more hard-line stance on overseas deployments, explicitly stating that he supports withdrawing American troops from areas where national interests are not at stake.
Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, despite being firmly rooted on the opposite side of the political spectrum, also supports the withdrawal of troops.
Nader's, however, is a more blanket approach in that he advocates withdrawing troops from all of Western Europe and from as much of the rest of the world as possible.
Unlike the other three candidates, Nader calls for a reduction in military spending and for the eventual abolition of all nuclear weapons.
Regardless of what candidate and which policies prevail, some analysts predict the victor in November's race will face a bumpy road on the way to ensuring a secure and formidable military.
"Current readiness is problematical, but future readiness is in serious trouble," Joseph J. Collins, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic Budgetary Assessments, said in a press release. "The next administration will face tough choices as it tries to maintain current readiness, replace old equipment and modernize, all at the same time."