- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 31, 2000

DENVER Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush yesterday accused the Clinton administration of stretching U.S. troops too thin and running morale into the ground, a record that calls for new management.

Mr. Bush, speaking at the nation's oldest Veterans of Foreign Wars post, ticked off a litany of ills that he said have plagued the military since President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore took office, including a dramatic drop in combat readiness, the inability of the Army and Air Force to meet their recruitment goals and the specter of 6,000 soldiers on food stamps.

"Al Gore claims that qualifies him for a promotion," said Mr. Bush. "No, the Clinton-Gore record cries out for a new sign on the Pentagon that says: 'Under new management.' "

If elected, Mr. Bush said he would immediately boost defense spending by $1 billion to improve pay and working conditions, reconsider troop deployments overseas, update combat technology through more research and development and devise a "long-term strategic vision" for the nation's military.

He told the gathering of about 100 veterans and Colorado dignitaries that he would counter "dangerously low morale" by treating the armed forces with the respect they deserve.

"My opponent, who is no stranger to exaggeration, I might add, boasts on his Web site that he has been intimately involved in the best-managed build-down in American military history," said Mr. Bush.

The Gore campaign fired back by calling the Texas governor too inexperienced to serve as the nation's commander in chief.

"Governor Bush can talk about military readiness all he wants, but he clearly isn't ready to lead the U.S. military," said Gore spokesman Douglas Hattaway. "Experts say his irresponsible position on missile defense could lead to a new arms race. With all the complex international issues we face, the next leader of the free world should not be going through on-the-job training."

Mr. Bush painted the Clinton-Gore administration as fundamentally unconcerned with U.S. military preparedness. He said the last seven years have seen military spending as a percentage of gross national product drop to its lowest level since the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.

The result has been low pay, poor housing and lack of equipment and training for U.S. soldiers, he said, even as the administration commits record numbers of peacekeeping troops to global hot spots.

He vowed to "review our commitments around the world," including in Haiti and the Balkans, and to encourage U.S. allies to "take more responsibility" in peacekeeping efforts.

Mr. Bush yesterday rejected Defense Secretary William S. Cohen's offer to give him a briefing on U.S. nuclear security. "I think the briefing I got from [retired Gen.] Colin Powell, [former Defense Secretary] Dick Cheney and [former Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger was substantial. These are leaders with a proven track record," said Mr. Bush. "I call upon my opponent not to allow members of the administration to politicize defense."

VFW Commander-elect Ron Reagon praised Mr. Bush for his commitment to veterans and the military.

"I'm very happy about what he wants to do," said Mr. Reagon. "Morale is certainly an issue so many troops are overworked."

Meanwhile, Mr. Gore campaigned in Milwaukee, where he was endorsed by the League of Conservation Voters, a political umbrella group representing 9 million members of various environmental organizations. It is headed by Deb Callahan, who was Mr. Gore's deputy national political director in his 1988 presidential bid.

Mr. Gore outlined his goals to protect the environment while maintaining economic growth, and said he wants make the next 10 years the "environmental decade."

"None of our children should have to worry whether the water they drink is pure or the air they breathe is clean," he said.

Mr. Gore said he would oppose changes in the Clean Air Act or Clean Water Act, vowed to clean up air pollution from the dirtiest power plants, called for an end to road building through national forests, and restated his opposition to oil drilling in Alaska.

• Audrey Hudson in Washington contributed to this report.

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