ONE OF THE glaring missed opportunities of George W. Bush's presidency was his failure to begin rebuilding the US military immediately after 9/11. At that hour of national solidarity and resolve, the president should have called for expanding the armed forces that had been so sharply reduced during the holiday from history that followed the end of the Cold War. He didn't, and the current crisis in military readiness is the result.
This problem didn't begin with Bush. During the Clinton years, the number of active military personnel had been slashed by half a million - the Army shrank by more than 200,000 troops, a 30 percent cut, while the Marines took a hit of 22,000.
Even before 9/11, American forces were feeling the stress from that downsizing. Today, with wars blazing in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military is stretched almost to the breaking point, in dire need of more troops and resorting to desperate measures to attract them.
The Army has been forced to lower its standards for new recruits, accepting volunteers who lack high school diplomas or score poorly on the military aptitude test. A growing number of new soldiers have medical problems; others require "moral waivers" because of past criminal activity or drug abuse.
The age of enlistment has been raised to 42, and signing and retention bonuses have grown more lavish. The Boston Globe reported last week on a new Army program that will provide up to $40,000 toward a new home or business in exchange for four years of military service.
Reinstating the draft would fill the ranks, but public opinion sharply opposes a return to military conscription. Yet even with loosened standards, richer bonuses, and more aggressive recruiting, it is hard to imagine that anything short of another 9/11-scale attack is going to induce the scores of thousands of young Americans the military needs to voluntarily join the armed forces.
So why not open the service to non-Americans?
US military service has never been restricted to US citizens. More than 40,000 noncitizens currently serve in the armed forces, nearly all of them permanent legal residents (green card holders).
Federal law provides an expedited naturalization process for members of the military, and more than 26,000 immigrant-soldiers have become citizens since 2001.
Indeed, the US Citizenship and Immigration Service has conducted naturalization ceremonies at military posts worldwide, including Camp Anaconda in Afghanistan, Camp Victory in Iraq, aboard the USS Kitty Hawk in the Sea of Japan, and along the DMZ in South Korea.
But the ability to earn American citizenship through military service needn't be limited to legal immigrants. Among the millions of illegal immigrants living in the United States are an estimated 750,000 young men and women of military age, many of whom would welcome the opportunity to become US citizens in return for serving in the armed forces.
Expanding the recruitment pool to include them would make it easier for the military to build up its ranks without having to lower its standards. And what better way for illegal immigrants to come "out of the shadows" and assimilate fully into American life than by wearing their adopted country's uniform in wartime?
Some experts would go even further.
Max Boot, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, recommend opening military service not just to immigrants already here but to would-be immigrants elsewhere.
By offering US citizenship to qualified foreigners willing to serve a four-year hitch in the military, they wrote in The Washington Post in 2006, "we could continue to attract some of the world's most enterprising, selfless, and talented individuals."
Such international recruits "would also address one of America's key deficiencies in the battle against Islamic extremists: our lack of knowledge of the languages and mores in the lands where terrorists reside."
It is a truism that the United States cannot absorb every foreigner who might wish to live here. But surely foreigners willing to put their lives at risk in defense of this country are just the sort of patriotic immigrants we should welcome with open arms.
For more than two centuries, noncitizens have taken up arms on behalf of the United States. Some, like the French Marquis de Lafayette and the Polish engineer Thaddeus Kosciusko, became heroes of the American Revolution.
Others are remembered only by historians. Boot notes that during the Civil War, one of every five Union soldiers was an immigrant.
At home and around the world, there are men and women who would jump at the chance to serve in the American armed forces in exchange for American citizenship.
It's a deal we ought to take.
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is [email protected].