Friday, June 30, 2006

Sleep well. Your National Guard is awake. But not too well, if you live on the border. Your Guardsman is not asleep, but through no fault of his own he’s missing in action.

The Bush administration promised to put 2,500 Guardsmen on the Mexican border by the end of June, and 6,000 by the end of July, and June is gone and fewer than a thousand Guardsmen are in place. The president asked the 50 states to send troops but so far only 10 have agreed.

“It’s not a combat priority,” says Kristine Munn, a spokeswoman at the National Guard Bureau in Washington. “It’s a volunteer mission, so it’s a question of balancing the needs of the Border Patrol with the needs of 54 states and territories, and all the balls roll in different directions.”

The states that have signed agreements with the four border states will send tired troops, and several governors, who command the Guard when it is not on federal service, have found excuses to keep their troops at home. Governors in the Atlantic states plead flood duty, in the West forest fires, and in the South hurricane relief.

States’ rights have never been so enthusiastically invoked. It’s enough to cheer the ghost of old John C. Calhoun. In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has pointedly told the president that his state won’t do what the feds ask. California has contributed more than its share of troops and the shortages of men expected on the border aren’t California’s responsibility. “The governor is prepared to do whatever it takes to secure California’s border,” a spokesman says, and adds a big “but.” “At the start of the fire season we cannot send troops to New Mexico and Arizona and other states when we already have a thousand troops committed [to border patrol].”

California’s reluctance is echoed back east. “South Carolina’s hurricane plan requires 1,600 troops to work along the coast during an evacuation and we double that number to be extra-careful,” says a spokesman for the South Carolina National Guard. “If we have a storm like Katrina, we would have every Guardsman who’s not in Iraq somewhere out on the street.”

Iraq, in fact, is the specter hovering over every National Guard barracks in the country. The National Guard, which is actually the various state militia in peacetime, has not served in so many places, in war and peace, since the end of World War II. Guard units, sometimes treated with less than universal respect by the regulars, served with courage and bravery in North Africa and across Europe, often with considerable contribution of fire and blood. But the weekend warriors were never intended to take on so many peacetime missions that were always understood to be federal responsibility.

Tony Snow, the president’s press secretary, insisted yesterday that suggestions that there won’t be enough military help on the border are “overblown,” but some of the president’s best friends are beginning to puff and blow as if they meant it. His adjutant general is confident his state can send its assigned allotment of 150 men to the border, Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas says, but in the tone and language of a sergeant choosing volunteers: “The president says it’s important, and since it’s his order to call them up, I will accept that it will be helpful.”

The Arkansas National Guard was the first in and last out of New Orleans after Katrina, and its 39th Infantry Brigade has returned from a year in Iraq, and two more brigades are just beginning to serve their one-year deployment in the desert. The Guardsmen remaining at home can expect duty in the nearby Gulf Coast states when more hurricanes strike.

The president’s order assigning the National Guard to enforce border security, such as it is, has been suspect from the beginning. The order sounded forceful and dramatic, but was received with considerable skepticism because on second thought it sounded as mostly sound and little fury, signifying not very much. The president’s heart is with amnesty, by whatever they’re calling it at the White House, and sending weary and exhausted National Guardsmen to “assist” the Border Patrol will neither secure the border nor staunch the gusher of desperate illegals, mostly Mexicans, pouring into the country in search of work. Immigration reform is as elusive as ever. Counting on the National Guard to render the politics harmless is merely blowing more smoke.

Pruden on Politics runs on Tuesdays and Fridays.

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