During a recent visit with our troops in Kosovo, President Bush agreed with Pope John Paul II's call for “humanitarian interference.”

Meanwhile, he also announced that the U.S. will seek to shift more peace-keeping responsibilities to other nations.

Such a shift is critical because the United States must focus its increasingly limited combat resources on a growing array of threats.

“As the people and countries of the Balkans move closer to Europe,” said Bush, “it's only natural that Europe assume increasing leadership and responsibility.”

The president also affirmed the Holy Father's homily for the Jubilee of the Armed Forces and the Police, delivered in Rome last November, in which John Paul endorsed the use of the military as a last resort to “disarm” and “stay the hand of the unjust aggressor.” Bush told U.S. soldiers: “The United States stands against all who use or support violence against democracy and the rule of law.”

While supporting peacekeeping, however, the U.S. must not be distracted from the growing number of security challenges around the world.

For some time, our military has been stretched too thin. Some 23% of the 1.4 million U.S. military personnel are currently scattered at duty stations in 141 countries. Between 1990 and 1997, our military was deployed 36 times for non-routine operations that included, among others, Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm in Kuwait, Operation Eastern Exit in Somalia, and stabilizing missions in Haiti and Bosnia.

Despite the increase in operational tempo, the proposed 2002 defense budget has shrunk, as a percent of the gross national product, to 3%, down from 5.1% in 1990.

The long-term results of these cuts and the increase in overseas deployments during the Clinton years have prompted a drastic decline in troop morale. Our discouraged soldiers are leaving the service in droves and this seriously threatens combat readiness.

A military-wide survey by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies found that two-thirds of our troops believe people in their units are “stressed out.” Only half agree that morale is high and nearly two-thirds (62%) believe their units lack the materiel and resources needed to accomplish their missions. Most alarming is the fact that 67% say their income is inadequate to provide for their families.

The Bush administration inherited this situation and it is now their duty to bolster the spirits of our troops. As a first step, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has launched three studies to determine how to reduce the number of deployments — and at the same time address emerging powers such as China and the threat of nuclear-tipped missiles launched at the United States or her allies by rogue nations.

While the U.S. commitment to defense spending has decreased, the communist Chinese have increased investment in their military by double digits in each of the last 12 years. They have modernized their forces with the latest Russian equipment, and have stolen or purchased some of our best nuclear- and ballistic-missile technologies — thereby increasing the threat against the United States.

More alarming is the fact that China is selling nuclear and ballistic-missile technology to a number of our potential adversaries. In late July 2001, four U.S. senators sent a letter to the president alleging that China has broken 15 non-proliferation pledges over the past 20 years by selling dangerous technologies to Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya and North Korea — all sworn enemies of the United States.

China's illegal transfer of deadly technologies to these countries has prompted the Bush administration to put the development and deployment of a national missile defense on a fast track. In order to accelerate this program, the Pentagon must find new funds or cut money from other existing or proposed programs. Peacekeeping, which has diverted precious defense money for years, is one of those programs being reevaluated.

President Bush recently told our troops stationed in Kosovo “We must step up our efforts to transfer responsibilities for public security from combat forces.”

Those forces and the funds to support them must be freed to address sagging soldier morale, the growing Chinese expansion and the threats of missile attacks by rogue nations.

Unfortunately, new conflicts arise each year that could warrant outside military intervention. In 2001, there have already been five significant military events ranging from the Thai-Myanmar border conflict to the growing conflict in Macedonia. The reality is that 32 significant new conflicts erupted during the 1990s alone. Military conflicts that threaten world peace will likely increase and many will become candidates for outside peacekeepers.

Peacekeeping missions might better be handled by the United Nations or regional defense pacts such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Currently, the United Nations has 16 active peacekeeping missions involving 50,000 troops. Thirty-five were initiated during the 1990s alone.

The United States should always promote peace, but its forces must be focused on preparing for real combat in defense of this nation and its worldwide interests.

Our military must not be bogged down performing utilitarian peace-keeping functions in far-flung places like Kosovo. Peacekeeping is, as Pope John Paul II has said, “courageous work” — but it's work best done by the United Nations or other regional defense pacts.

Lt. Col. Robert Maginnis is vice president of policy for the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C. He retired from the U.S. Army in 1993.