- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 22, 2006

There’s something potentially interesting afoot on questions of military manpower. Last week, defense analysts Michael O’Hanlon and Max Boot proposed granting U.S. citizenship to qualified foreign nationals in exchange for four years of service in the U.S. military. This idea might seem radical, but it’s not as large a departure from current practice as it sounds. Done properly, citizenship for service could be a smart improvement on existing policies, the manpower shortcomings of which are clear enough. The trick will be to ensure that neither citizenship nor military service are degraded in the process.

President Bush has already created something of a precedent for Messrs. O’Hanlon’s and Boot’s proposal. Shortly after the September 11 attacks he ordered an expedited path to citizenship for green-card-holding service members. This was a means of thanking selfless noncitizens, but it also quickly became an incentive to join up. At present, tens of thousands of foreign nationals serve in the U.S. military (37,400 as of 2003).

This new proposal would essentially extend the same offer to recruits overseas — who would then need to prove their mettle with significant military service before reaping any rewards. One needn’t wax eloquent on the Marquis de Lafayette or Gen. Tadeusz Kosciuszko to see the possibilities here. The United States would be favorably positioned to screen out all but the best of potentially millions of aspirants.

Let it be said at the outset that any such path to citizenship would need to exclude illegal aliens, and should require rigorous English-language proficiency tests and entail very thorough background screenings to keep out criminals and foreign agents. In general, it would need to be limited in scope. It could not be allowed to significantly alter either the culture of U.S. military institutions nor to feed the mistaken public perception that military service is something to avoid. It could also never lose sight of the preciousness of U.S. citizenship, which should only be granted to those who exhibit a clear desire to become as American as their neighbors and to follow both the spirit and the letter of U.S. law, not just to enjoy the fruits of the American economy.

Some thoughtful observers like Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies see significant downsides. “[T]he most likely result would be to turn soldiering into yet another ‘job Americans won’t do,’” Mr. Krikorian wrote in National Review Online last week. “• nce we start down the road of recruiting from the German tribes across the Rhine, the ever-present budget pressures guarantee that the Pentagon and appropriators in Congress would push for ever-larger allotments of foreign troops, because they’d be so much more cost-effective than Americans. Heck, we could recruit a million men — tomorrow — to fight for free so long as they could move their families here when their hitch was up.”

And indeed the idea wouldn’t be worth it if citizenship-for-service were to end up cheapening both citizenship and service. The citizen-soldier ideal is already bruised and battered. Of course, the other options aren’t terrific either. The conventional ones are a further lowering of standards, which most informed observers think is out of the question; spending significantly more on incentives and recruiting, both of which are subject to diminishing returns; and, of course, failing all else, a military draft, which is ill-advised and deeply unpopular.

A modest citizenship-for-service program to recruit several thousand foreign nationals for service in the U.S. military is an idea Congress should debate when it reconvenes in January. Something must be done about the manpower shortage, and this has the potential to help.

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