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When the United States, and its allies, last took on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the Persian Gulf War of 1991, the U.S. Army had 18 divisions. In the years since, that number has been reduced to 10. Of those remaining 10, three are permanently committed to the defense of South Korea and another is involved in “peacekeeping” in Bosnia.

The entire Defense Department budget has been reduced by one-third — not only cutting the numbers of combat personnel available for Round 2 of the showdown with Iraq, but their readiness as well, says an internal Senate memorandum on the state of the military. The report calls the preparedness problems “extremely serious.”

Nevertheless, in spite of the drastic cuts in military forces in the past seven years, the U.S. has been deploying its remaining troops on foreign missions with more regularity than ever before. From 1980 through 1989, U.S. armed forces were used 22 times for foreign assignments. Since then, they have been used 36 times.

Training has suffered due to the cutbacks, say West Point sources. Units are not training under the commanders who would lead them into war because they are so often pulled away for overseas missions. That strikes some expert observers as a cardinal sin and violation of the old edict, “Train just as you go to war.”

Tank and armored units are woefully short of qualified mechanics. Because of recruiting problems, basic infantry units are often lacking junior enlisted men and mid-grade sergeants.

And it’s not just the Army that’s got readiness concerns. Mission-capable rates for some fighter jets are more than 15 percentage points lower than they were 10 years ago. The Air Force is expected to play a major role in the imminent Iraqi raids.

“We’ve got some severe stresses,” admits General Richard Hawley, head of the Air Force’s Air Combat Command. There is “not enough resilience in the force.”

So let’s say the U.S. is forced to deploy as many as four heavy divisions to the Middle East conflict. What would be left? Nothing. That’s it. There would be no more heavy divisions in reserve if things went badly or another conflict broke out somewhere else in the world.

Imagine if North Korea took advantage of our deployment in the Persian Gulf to invade the south. What would be our options then?

A classified Pentagon memo written after a war game last spring said the exercise “made it obvious that we cannot sustain current levels of overseas presence.” In other words, we’re not prepared to fight on two fronts at once. As an example, simply policing Hussein’s no-fly zone over southern Iraq requires anywhere from 100 to 300 aircraft. It’s clear that any further engagement in Iraq is going to extend our armed forces to their limits — and possibly beyond.

But, even worse, is the way the Clinton administration has pretended that those threatening noises emanating from Moscow are not really happening. Yes, Russian President Boris Yeltsin actually threatened the United States with world war if it attacked Iraq. Is this an idle threat? Are these just the rantings of an old drunk? Are we prepared to bet our lives on it?

While Yeltsin’s comments were well-covered by the establishment press, a Feb. 7 dispatch from Iraq’s INA news service went virtually unnoticed. Bahraini Television quoted Vladimir Yakovlev, commander of Russia’s Strategic Missile Troops, as stating that his forces are ready to repulse any foreign military offensive against Iraq.

Tass reported the day before that if the U.S. used tactical nuclear weapons against Iraq, Russian forces would be prepared to respond quickly with nuclear weapons of their own. Yakovlev’s comments, by the way, were not offhand remarks. He was making a formal report to the Russian parliament.

Nevertheless, the world sleeps. Washington plans for another 72-hour war in the Middle East. You’ve got to believe that Clinton, ever the politician, sees this as his chance to divert attention from Tailgate and emerge a national war hero.

Could the U.S. be biting off far more than it is ready, willing and able to chew? Are we being led into a trap? Or is the tail just wagging the dog?

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