March 1, 2007  

Create a U.S. foreign legion

America is a land of immigrants. Their spirit of resolve, adventure, hard work and devotion to an idea bigger than themselves has made this country great. Whatever one thinks of the immigration debate today, particularly the problem of illegal immigrants, foreigners have played a central role in the building of America. Many have done so as soldiers, among them Baron von Steuben and the Marquis de Lafayette in the War of Independence.

Now is the time to consider a new chapter in the annals of American immigration. By inviting foreigners to join the U.S. armed forces in exchange for a promise of citizenship after a four-year tour of duty, we could continue to attract some of the world’s most enterprising, selfless and talented individuals. We could provide a new path toward assimilation for undocumented immigrants who are already here but lack the prerequisite for enlistment: a green card. And we could solve the No. 1 problem facing the Army and Marine Corps: the fact that these services need to grow to meet current commitments yet cannot easily do so (absent a draft) given the current recruiting environment.

Not only would immigrants provide a valuable influx of highly motivated soldiers, they would also address one of America’s key deficiencies in the battle against Islamist extremists: our lack of knowledge of the languages and mores in the lands where terrorists reside. Newly arrived Americans can help us avoid trampling on local sensitivities and thereby creating more enemies than we eliminate.

Skeptics might point out that in the just-concluded fiscal year, the military met most of its recruiting and retention goals. But this was done only by relaxing age and aptitude restrictions, allowing in more individuals with criminal records, and greatly increasing the number of recruiters and advertising dollars. Although we generally support what has been done to date, the logic of these measures cannot be pushed much further.

The Army chief of staff, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, has forecast that U.S. commitments in Iraq may remain at their current level until 2010. With most soldiers and Marines already on a third or even fourth deployment since Sept. 11, 2001, it’s doubtful that the all-volunteer force can withstand such a commitment at its current size. Even if it could, it’s unfair to ask so much of so few for so long.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates appears to agree with this conclusion, and is pushing for an expansion in the Army of some 60,000 soldiers as a result. That raises not only the question of whether 60,000 is enough, however, but also the matter of where we are going to find 60,000 additional enslistees in a domestic recruiting environment that has been very difficult for years

Some might object to our proposal on moral grounds arguing that it is wrong to rely on “mercenaries” and to use such incentives to get prospective immigrants to fight. We disagree. For one thing, we already rely on tens of thousands of real mercenaries: the security contractors the U.S. government employs from Colombia to Iraq to make up for lack of troops. Immigrants who enrolled in our armed forces would be more valuable because they would be under military discipline and motivated by more than just a paycheck.

As for the risks they would run in Iraq or Afghanistan, these would be no greater than the risks run by previous generations of newcomers who built railroads and skyscrapers and toiled in factories and mines. No one would be forced to serve. No existing immigration quotas would be reduced. The military avenue to citizenship would be a new option, not an obligation.

Nativists need not fear that this would lead to a flood of foreigners. Say we decide to recruit 50,000 foreigners a year for the next three years. That sounds like a lot, but it represent less than 10 percent of the total number coming to the U.S. anyway — and less than 10 percent of our active-duty armed forces. This would not radically change the demographics of our society or our military, but it would make a big difference in the size of the rotation base for our ongoing missions.

Despite growing anti-Americanism, U.S. citizenship is still one of the world’s most precious commodities, so there should be no shortage of volunteers. Since proficiency in English would presumably be important for those joining the armed forces, we might focus on South Asia, Anglophone Africa, and parts of Latin America, Europe and East Asia (the Philippines would be a natural recruiting ground) where English is common as a second language. These regions have more than 2 billion people, tens of millions of whom reach military age each year.

The problem would not be the size of the likely applicant pool so much as our ability to vet individuals for their abilities, their dependability and their commitment. Screening would have to be done to ensure that would-be terrorists did not gain access to the armed forces through this program. That might complicate the process of recruiting from certain countries, especially in the Middle East, but it would hardly put a huge dent in the likely applicant pool.

Unlike most issues in the immigration debate, the idea of offering citizenship to foreigners who first join the armed forces should be a winner for everyone. It is good for immigrants who wish to pursue U.S. citizenship, which they could not otherwise attain. It is good for a beleaguered American military that is simply too small for the tasks it has been handed. And it is good for the country, bringing more hardworking patriots to our shores. Before the all-volunteer force breaks, it is high time to consider the idea of such a latter-day foreign legion.

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today.“ Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author with Kurt Campbell of “Hard Power: The New Politics of National Security.“