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Polls, pundits and prognostications. The casual observer of
televised campaign coverage might mistakenly believe those are the
issues of the presidential and congressional races, particularly during
the party conventions.

Today, public opinion is treated like a college-football survey.
Every pundit is a self-appointed expert. Changes in the candidates’
clothing and supporting cast are discussed as “analysis.” Issues? As
every voter knows, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Right?

Not necessarily.

Trust The American Legion on this tip: The most important issue in
Election 2000 is the federal constitutional requirement to provide a
strong national defense.

Remember three facts before you exercise the right to vote — a right
purchased by the blood of American citizen-soldiers: there is no
prosperity without peace; there is no peace without military strength;
there is no military strength without strong leadership.

Election Day is about those who will provide the national security
leadership in Congress and in the Oval Office during this critical time.
The American Legion clearly made this point in its “Platform Statement”
to Republican and Democratic platform committees. Legionnaires will
reinforce the message on Election Day — all voters should.

Here is the big picture: U.S. troops are deployed to 132 foreign
countries and on the world’s oceans and in its air space; these men and
women miss anniversaries, funerals, holidays and, in some cases, the
births of their children so that we can live in peace and freedom.

Our nation has the best troops in the world. There are not enough of
them on active duty to fulfill all of the missions in which this
administration has involved our armed forces. While spending too much
time away from their families on peacekeeping missions and, frankly, at
the expense of battle preparation, many service members vote with their
feet and bitterly leave the military. They leave not as the military’s
goodwill ambassadors or as “recruiters” but as anti-recruiters.

Simply put, America could not send the same level of forces to the
Persian Gulf today that were deployed in the Gulf War. In 1987, there
were 2.1 million military service members on active duty. Today, with a
300 percent increase in commitments around the world, that number is
1.36 million; fewer troops are carrying a heavier operational load.
The Navy had 583,000 uniformed service members and 435 battle-force
ships in 1987. Today, those numbers are 385,000 sailors and 313 ships,
one-third of which will be deployed on any given day; the decline in
naval surface fire support in battle could put the lives of U.S. ground
troops at a considerably higher risk. Air Force active-duty strength
has declined from 609,000 to 372,000 since 1987. The Army has been
downsized from 14 to 10 divisions since 1993.

Downsizing the military is just the tip of the iceberg. In another
potentially serious blow to readiness, the administration is poised to
end 60 years of Navy-Marine Corps training at the Navy’s Vieques base,
the only base in the Atlantic where such vital preparation for battle
can take place.

The pay is not good enough to retain many of the best and brightest
service members. The Pentagon estimates about 6,300 troops receive
“food stamps.” Recruitment has become more of a challenge as young
people hear horror stories from the media, veterans, service members and
former disgruntled service members. As high school and college
graduates weigh higher-paying civilian options — particularly as
military retirees await the free health care they were promised and
Korean War veterans who fought at No Gun Ri are raked over the media’s
coals — the military struggles to meet its recruitment goals.

A growing number of high school principals (more than 600 now) refuse
to grant military recruiters equal access to students, which makes a bad
situation unbearable for the armed forces.

Both the Army and the Navy will fail to meet their officer
recruitment goals for a fifth consecutive year. The Reserve Officer
Training Corps, through which more than half the military’s line
officers are commissioned, is projected to fall short of its year 2000
goal. Numerous college ROTC programs were closed during the downsizing
of the 1990s. Even the service academies are a hard sell today, despite
the prestigious, top-notch and virtually free education they offer.

These dangerous developments accompany the attempted arms buildups by
Iraq and North Korea as well as China’s bid to become the dominant force
in Asia. Prior to the commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the
Korean War in Seoul, I stood in the Demilitarized Zone and joint
security area alongside U.S. troops. Staring North Korean soldiers
right in the eyes reminded me that the United States must not be lulled
into complacency by North Korea’s possibly short-lived and
currency-driven diplomacy. Further, Permanent Normalized Trade
Relations with China can only foster that communist country’s military
build-up and bolster its antagonism against Taiwan.

Despite all the careless moves in defense policy, some candidates
will tell you that a strong national defense is too costly. However,
history teaches us that failed defense policy, in terms of bloodshed, is
far more costly than adequate defense spending. As Sir John Cotesworth
Slessor, Marshal of the British Royal Air Force, said in 1954, “… the
most important social service that a government can do for its people is
to keep them alive and free.”

Some candidates will say the Cold War is over and it is time for
defense to take a back seat. It is up to ordinary working Americans to
challenge those myopic Pollyannas to remember the bloody lesson learned
at Pearl Harbor in 1941, when our defense had been weakened and our
national conscience was distracted from inevitable war: the
simple-minded idea that there is no threat is the greatest threat of
all.

We all understand our nation’s most pressing problem. On Nov. 7, we
should be a part of the solution. Set aside the polls, pundits and
prognostications. Vote for the candidates who take seriously the
constitutional imperative to “provide for the common defense.” There is
no free speech, no free elections and no free-market economy without
those who serve in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast
Guard to preserve and protect our rights and liberties. There is
no free lunch — even in an election year.

National Commander Al Lance is the elected leader of the 2.8-million
member American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans organization.

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