WASHINGTON – Rep. Mike Rogers (search), R-Ala., says opponents can engage in a lively debate about stretching the military too thin without criticizing the war in Iraq.
“I don’t think it’s political at all. It’s a real problem,” Rogers told Foxnews.com in a recent interview. He said the current state of military readiness must be addressed if the United States plans to stay in Iraq and continue to deploy troops to places like Bosnia, Afghanistan, Africa and now Haiti.
“We’re going to have a presence in a host of locations around the world,” said Rogers, who serves on the military readiness subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee (search), and has traveled recently to Iraq to assess the state of the war there.
“Our military, in our view, is not structured to accommodate that role,” he added, calling the situation “a serious problem.”
To accommodate the regional deployment needs, he said more National Guard and reserve military units have been activated than any other time in American history. More than 300,000 reserve and guard troops have been activated since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Some 40 percent of the 110,000 fresh troops being rotated back into Iraq by May are expected to be part of guard and reserve units. The Pentagon, however, has expressed reluctance to grow the total military force — active duty, reserve and guard — to over two million men and women, Rogers said. Rather, the Department of Defense wants to transform the numbers they have now to conform to 21st Century warfare.
But Rogers disagrees — he believes recruitment is key, along with transformation.
“They want time to retool. A lot of us aren’t inclined to do this — we’re more in favor of growing the numbers,” he said, which will take more money. “Funding is first and foremost. It’s going to be a point of hot debate.”
But Rogers, a freshman incumbent who hails from the third district in eastern Alabama, says this debate has nothing to do about the principles of going to war against Saddam Hussein. He was and still is in solid support of ousting the former Iraqi dictator, and denounces criticisms from the Democratic side of the aisle as politically motivated.
“I think the criticisms are completely political and unfortunate,” he said. “We have gone in for the right reasons and I think we have been enormously successful. Most importantly, our country is going to be a safer place to be because of it.”
Rogers, 45, is in an interesting position, say political observers.
A Republican in a district that while decidedly conservative, is 58 percent Democratic, he won his seat by a slim 50 percent to 48 percent margin in 2002. This would make him a prime target for Democrats in 2004, but so far he has no challenger, and the filing deadline for potential candidates is April 2.
“It’s a competitive district, but the clock is running out,” said Nathan Gonzales, an analyst for the Rothenberg Political Report.
Greg Speed, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (search), said that the party was in discussions “with more than one (potential) candidate right now,” and that Democrats are “still very confident that we will have a formidable opponent to Congressman Rogers.”
The third district falls along the Alabama-Georgia border and includes Calhoun County, which carries a strong military tradition — Fort McClelland was shut down here in 1999. The small town of Lineville sent more soldiers to Operation Desert Storm (search) per population than any other town in the country, and continues to send many of its young ones overseas, said Rogers.
And while the district, which also includes the cities of Talladega and Tuskegee, voted for President Bush over then-Vice President Al Gore 52 percent to 47 percent, folks there have been wracked by job loss, critics say, mostly from the aging textile industry.
Rogers, a conservative who says he has helped to bring money to the Anniston Army Depot for a new mechanized vehicle maintenence facility, said he is trying hard to promote “fair trade” above free trade and admits the issue has traction with his constituents.
“Jobs are a real issue in my district and I have spent a tremendous amount of time in the last many months trying to encourage jobs to grow and survive in this current climate,” he said.
But Joe Turnham, Rogers opponent in 2002 who said he will decide soon whether to launch another challenge, said he has been watching the Republican freshman, and charges that Rogers’ free trade promises have not bode well for the district in the last two years. Turnham also knocks on the giant Medicare bill signed in December, and the Bush tax cuts, both of which Rogers supported.
“Whether I run or not, I’m going to make sure people know his record,” he charged.
Speed said the Democrats plan to attack him as a “rubber stamp” for the GOP leadership with little mind of his own.
But Rogers’ Republican allies say he has been working hard to convince voters he can deliver, and his commitment to the military is genuine.
“I appreciate the level of interest he brings to the table when it comes to making sure our military has the things I needs,” said Rep. Robin Hayes, R-N.C., who sits with Rogers on the subcommittee. “Mike is a great guy.”
Rep. Rob Simmons, R-Conn., who sits on the Armed Services Committee (search) with Rogers, traveled to Iraq with him.
“I saw an individual who is very dedicated to this great nation and the people he serves,” Simmons said. “I know from experience he is the type of person who gets things done for the people of Alabama.”
Rogers said it has been a difficult but rewarding two years, and he believes he has earned at least some respect from the skeptics in his district.
“We’re light years from where we were two years ago,” he said, noting his goal is to convince people “to start thinking of me as a congressman, not just a Republican."