Massive recent media coverage to the contrary, the most important story out of North Carolina regarding the 2008 presidential election and beyond did not involve a recurrence of Elizabeth Edwards' breast cancer.
It does not diminish the Edwards' somber news in any way to note that there is more significance for the United States in reports that the 82nd Airborne Division has given up its long-held "first responder" status among American ground units. Both the ongoing foreign policy debate and the task that awaits the next president are immediately impacted by the news.
For several decades now, the 82nd has been home to the United States' only "division ready brigade." This means that at any time, one of its four combat brigades is ready to deploy 3,300 troops from Ft. Bragg to anywhere in the world within hours. However, that will change later this year when the entire 82nd will be deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan.
This presents a rather concrete case of the strain on the U.S. military five years into major ground combat operations across the Middle East. The next President, whoever he or she might be, will have to manage that strain.
Paratroopers are not born, they are made. It takes more than a little training to convince men with explosives strapped to themselves to jump out of airplanes in the dead of night, land on people who want to kill them, and then proceed to kill those people non-stop until they are relieved or they run out of bad guys.
Yet the current pace and scope of operations has made the 82nd a victim of its own competency and unit cohesion. Need a unit to run interference for elections across wild Afghanistan? Send the 82nd. Baghdad looking a little too hot? Send the 82nd on a tour of Downtown.
That America is using such highly trained assault troops in essentially a para-military police role should inform and temper the likes of Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) who yesterday wrote in USA Today that "things are at last beginning to look up in Iraq." Assume that is true, but at what cost?
One clear cost is a reduction in America's quick respond capability. With the 82nd previously engaged, the division-ready job is being moved to the 101st Airborne at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. Although the Screaming Eagles are the equal of the All-Americans in terms of combat training and effectiveness, they ride to battle in a slightly different way.
Where the 82nd jumps from planes guns blazing, the 101st screams in aboard assault helicopters, hence the Air Assault moniker. The heliborne element gives the 101st some advantages in terms of speed and depth of reach, but it is dependent on having a secure airport or two on which to land the cargo planes that carry its helicopters. The 82nd, in contrast, could be deployed to take an airport with troop drop. In other words, the 101st is slightly less deployable than the 82nd, perhaps able to perform 90 percent of the missions the 82nd could undertake. However, with each day America's likely enemies are learning how to counter U.S. helicopters.
For example, it is widely understood in Iraq that U.S. pilots are trained to avoid deadly utility wires by flying directly over telephone poles. As a result bad guys zero-in and plan to fire their weapons directly above the poles when they think U.S. forces are in-bound. This tactic works for any kind of weapon - anti-aircraft guns, small arms, guided or unguided missiles or rockets. Put it this way, in 2007 the U.S. helicopter is not exactly immune to enemy counter-measures. And the 101st is utterly dependent on helicopters.
But American's strategic brain trust seems to be in denial about these developments in modern warfare and America's force structure. When asked about the 82nd's stand-down as America's 911 service last week , former U.S. ambassador to the UN John Bolton played the change down.
One of the primary architects of the Bush Administration response to global threats, Bolton cited a need for increased defense spending as a way to recover this lost capability. Bolton also strongly implied that government spending - not managing deployments - was the key to an effective fighting force.
"Even despite several years of increased expenditures on equipment and research and things like that, we had a long decline during the eight years of the Clinton administration. The constant up-and-down of the defense budget leaves forces strained," Bolton told an audience at a recent speech in Charlotte.
"But having said that, I don't think anybody should fall for the argument that because we've got extensive commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq that we are not able to meet our obligations or take the steps that are necessary in other parts of the world like defending South Korea or other parts of the world," Bolton continued. "It is just flat wrong to say that we're so bogged down in Iraq that we can't deal elsewhere. That's a mistake. It's a counsel of defeatism by people who fundamentally don't want us to do it anyway."
The Bolton Doctrine is thus comprised of several parts. One, to worry about the effect of repeated deployments on America's elite infantry units is to be defeatist. This defeatist spin mirrors, almost four years to the day, David Frum's National Review cover-story screed against anyone who dared question the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan as perhaps not the best policy for America.
Second, America can, in fact, spend its way to victory. Will and wallet, working together, can overcome bad strategy and judgment. Call it the public education approach to foreign policy. The flinty, world-weary neo-con realpolitik replaced by John Dewey in body armor.
It is not much of a plan, but it will have to do. To victory.