WASHINGTON -- Dear President-Elect Bush: Congratulations. It didn't turn out the way any of us expected, but it sure was one exciting election. I have to admit, I called the race wrong; so did you, so did your opponent and so did the pollsters and pundits. Who would have thought that a handful of absentee ballots -- apparently most of them from military personnel -- would make the difference in the outcome of your election. But they did. And this letter is written on their behalf.
You're getting a lot of advice right now on what your priorities should be when you're sworn in on Jan. 20, 2001. You haven't even moved into those nice "transition offices" that the General Services Administration has set up for you at 1800 G Street NW in Washington, D.C., and you're already being besieged by petitioners for those 14 cabinet positions and the 6,000 other executive branch appointments you have to make. And given the way this election went, some are saying that you and the new Congress need to get together right away on abolishing the Electoral College. But before we start tinkering with the Constitution, there's a much higher priority -- those military members who made you their commander in chief.
Three days after the American people went to the polls to elect you, the U.S. Marine Corps celebrated the 225th anniversary of its founding. This remarkable organization is your 911 force -- the first you'll send out when trouble beckons. They have been doing so much for so long with so little that the previous administration apparently believed they could do everything forever, with nothing. Hopefully, the folks now advising you know better.
And just four days after those military absentee ballots made you the "commander in chief-elect," the nation observed another Veteran's Day. Next year, by the time you place a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery's tomb of the unknowns, if you and the new Congress haven't already acted to improve the readiness of our armed forces, we could be in very serious trouble. On the day you were elected, there were more than a dozen killed and wounded in battles between Israelis and Palestinians, and the "mother of all despots," Saddam Hussein, started rattling his saber yet again.
Back in August, you told the annual Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, "The current administration inherited a military ready for the dangers and challenges facing our nation. The next president will inherit a military in decline." You said then that "even the highest morale is eventually undermined by back-to-back deployments, poor pay, shortages of spare parts and equipment, and rapidly declining readiness." You were right. Now, those who placed their trust in you and put you over the top are counting on you to redress the debilitating effects of a 40 percent cut in military spending while undertaking an average of one new overseas deployment every nine weeks.
What you say and do about the military during your first few days in office will get around the services faster than you can say "recount in Florida." The previous administration's disdain (dare we call it "loathing"?) for the military sped through the ranks like a cruise missile headed for Baghdad. Your predecessor hadn't even figured out the rental rate for the Lincoln bedroom before the troops were telling stories about White House military aides being treated like butlers at official functions. When your predecessor buried a fat-cat campaign donor who was a phony "vet" in the hallowed ground of Arlington National Cemetery, there were barracks wagers on whether the Army would beat the Marines on digging up the body. And when American servicemen were killed in Iraq, and their families were told that they could be proud their sons "died in the service of the United Nations," veterans cried. These aren't the kind of matters that have to wait for you and Congress to act. They just take common sense -- and respect for those who serve in uniform.
Every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine knows that you won't be able to fix everything overnight. They know it's going to take you and the new Congress a while to repair military recruiting, retention and readiness that have declined to a 50-year low over the last eight years. But there are things that you, as the new commander in chief, can do right away to boost their sagging morale. We now have more than 15,000 U.S. servicemen deployed around the world at the beck and call of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan -- nearly 800 of them wearing UN uniforms.
How about an order on Jan. 22, 2001 that states: "Effective immediately: No U.S. military personnel shall be required to wear any uniform or insignia other than that of the Armed Forces of the United States." And then make an early visit to a military base and tell them that as long as you're their commander in chief, not one drop of their blood will be shed to provide credibility for the United Nations. Come to think of it, if you start out this way after Inauguration Day, next time around, you probably won't have to wait for a recount.