WASHINGTON -- Troops patrol the streets of Haiti. Ships anchor off the Kuwait-Iraq border to help build a giant military force. And U.S. warplanes drop foodstuffs in Bosnia and maintain "no-fly" zones over Iraq.
It has become a hallmark of the Clinton administration to commit U.S. soldiers to keeping the peace in the world's trouble spots. But President Clinton has been sending soldiers on overseas missions while drastically cutting the defense budget, and some critics have suggested that the peacekeeping missions -- combined with the latest buildup in Kuwait -- will leave the military dangerously overextended and ill-equipped.
"We're spread very thin, make no mistake about it," Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., said yesterday. "We've got problems, and we've got to face up to it. We ought to be putting money into our defense budget instead of taking it out."
The American military is an organization in transition.
It was structured to fight one giant foe -- the Soviet Union. It is now being reduced and restructured to fight an array of minor foes and perform such non-military duties as fighting starvation, floods and disease. But some critics fear the administration has pushed the military too quickly in that direction while not keeping an eye on its ability to fight a major war with a potential nuclear power like North Korea.
Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his eye possibly on the budget debates within the administration, issued this warning at a Pentagon news conference Tuesday: "The times are clearly such that the demands on the armed forces are very extensive. I think we've been able to do very, very well those difficult tasks we've been asked to do, but we also watch very carefully to make sure that we don't get stretched out."
But several defense experts dismissed the complaints -- many by Republicans, who have called for increased defense spending -- as fiscal saber rattling. Under Clinton military doctrine, U.S. forces should be prepared to fight two "nearly simultaneous" regional wars, and the experts said current forces are up to the task.
"I don't think the military is being stressed in any way," said Jack Mendelsohn of the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based military analysis group.
Lawrence Korb, assistant secretary of defense for manpower under former President Reagan, said much of the talk about a "hollow force" -- in which troops lack skills and are missing needed equipment -- is absurd. "I understand the politics," he said of Mr. Clinton's critics, "but they are really doing a disservice. We're much better than we talk ourselves into thinking we are."
Mr. Korb noted that the Clinton defense budget this year -- about $270 billion -- is higher than in the 1980s, even though military personnel have been cut by one-fifth. If anything, he said, money is being wasted on continuing routine deployments established during the Cold War, running too many commissaries and other extravagances.
Still, there are concerns.
Some Pentagon planners believe certain units are being strained by frequent rotation into emergency peacekeeping duty.
Other experts believe that Mr. Clinton's defense budget will not adequately fund the military in future years, especially if it must meet the mandate of fighting back-to-back wars.
For example, recent operations in Somalia, Rwanda, the Caribbean and now the Middle East stretched thin some military units responsible for duties such as water purification, policing, psychological operations, transportation and logistics. "A lot of what is used today tends to be what we don't have that many of," one official said. "It comes down to the narrowly focused issue of force configuration."
Andrew Krepinevich, director of the Defense Budget Project, a non-governmental watchdog, said that, over the long term, frequent deployments will affect readiness because they cut down on training and also reduce re-enlistments.
Mr. Krepinevich also said Mr. Clinton's defense budget -- $100 billion less over five years than the last budget proposed by former President Bush -- will not be able to provide enough money to let the military meet its mandate.
"All you have to do is talk to any of our military leaders in the field and they'll tell you that our readiness is suffering, our training is suffering," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who two weeks ago released a report criticizing the state of military readiness.
The report, based on survey answers from chiefs of staff for the four military divisions, said that peacekeeping activities and other emergency deployments were being funded at the expense of combat training and readiness.