Clinton’s Strong Defense Legacy

The notion that President Bill Clinton was a poor steward of the armed forces has become so commonly accepted that it is now often taken for granted—among moderates and independents as well as Republicans such as George W. Bush, who made the charge in the first place. The Clinton administration, so the thinking goes, presided over an excessive downsizing of the U.S. military, seriously weakening the magnificent fighting machine built by Ronald Reagan and honed by George H.W. Bush. It frittered away American power and left the country an object of derision to its enemies, tempting them to misbehave.

This assessment, however, is wrong. The Clinton administration’s use of force (or lack thereof ) may be controversial, but the Clinton Pentagon oversaw the most successful defense drawdown in U.S. history—cutting military personnel by 15 percent more than the previous administration had planned while retaining a high state of readiness and a strong global deterrence posture. It enacted a prescient modernization program. And the military it helped produce achieved impressive successes in Bosnia and Kosovo and, more significant, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Although these victories were primarily due to the remarkable dedication and skill of U.S. troops, credit is also owed to Clinton’s defense policy.

The Clinton defense team did not, however, do a good job of managing military morale, taking too long to figure out how to distribute a demanding workload fairly and sustainably across a smaller force. As a consequence, U.S. troops became overworked and demoralized, and many left the military or considered doing so. Although many of these problems were largely repaired by the end of the decade, they undoubtedly detract from Clinton’s military achievements. But they do not justify the overwhelmingly negative assessment of his defense record.