Talk of draft poses policy questions

Resurrecting the draft is an idea that’s time has not yet come.

Few ideas generate as much controversy in this country as reinstating the draft. It conjures images of burning draft cards, young men in flight toward Canada and anti-war demonstrations. But controversy hasn’t stopped two congressmen – Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., – from arguing that the United States should return to compulsory military service.

Rangel is concerned that the burden of service in the U.S. volunteer military falls disproportionately on communities facing high unemployment. Hagel is intent on replenishing a military stretched perilously thin by operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. While both congressmen have legitimate concerns that deserve healthy public debate, their proposals ultimately miss the mark. The real topic of discussion should be whether this country wants or needs the kind of overactive foreign policy that leaves us contemplating a return to the draft.

Only a decade ago, defense spending was falling and Congress was closing military bases across the country. Today, with 135,000 troops in Iraq and many facing extended tours, critics such as Hagel are right to worry that current troop strength is insufficient to sustain our foreign policy commitments. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld came into office with a vision of a smaller, more mobile fighting force paired with new battlefield technologies. That model worked well in toppling the Taliban and the Iraqi regime, but it has so far failed miserably in securing the peace. Violence continues to impede economic and political progress in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Whether we want a hyperactive and unilateral brand of foreign policy that leads some to support the draft is a question that will be decided at the polls in November. For now, it is clear that the quality of our volunteer military today is leagues ahead of the draft military we fielded in Vietnam. That alone is enough to dispense with talk of a draft. It is equally clear that the draft poses a moral challenge when it forces young men to fight and die in a war they oppose. Presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., asked the right question when he testified before Congress 33 years ago, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”