Winning With the Military Clinton Left Behind

Just over a year ago, George Bush and Dick Cheney were campaigning hard on the theme that Bill Clinton and Al Gore had run down the United States military. Picking up a traditional Republican refrain, they claimed that defense cuts under President Clinton had gone too far, that the armed forces had been overused badly, that readiness was poor. But now President Bush stands on the verge of winning a war with the military that Bill Clinton bequeathed him. Just as in NATO’s 1999 war against Serbia, the United States military has led coalition forces to a decisive victory while suffering very few casualties in the process.

Some might wish to give the young Bush administration and its impressive secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, primary credit for the performance of American forces in Afghanistan. The administration developed an effective war plan that defeated the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and it has a sound broader strategy in the struggle against terrorism.

But it is still Bill Clinton’s military that has actually been winning this war. The Bush administration had barely started to make its mark on defense policy before hostilities in Afghanistan began. Last spring, it provided a $5 billion supplemental appropriation for the 2001 defense budget, but that constituted less than 2 percent of defense spending for the year and had hardly begun to be noticed before the war began.

The Bush administration also announced the results of a new strategic review on Sept. 30. But such a review cannot affect military operations that begin within days of its release. Moreover, the review did not reverse any of Bill Clinton’s military force cuts, despite the claims of the Bush campaign last year that those reductions had gone too far. In most respects, the review looked very much like what one might have expected a Clinton or Gore administration to produce.

Some would prefer to credit Ronald Reagan or President Bush’s father with the fine military this country now possesses. They rescued the armed forces from a post-Vietnam malaise and made the overwhelming victory in Desert Storm possible. They were also much more popular among America’s military personnel than Bill Clinton ever was.

But Bill Clinton did not squander their legacy. The performance of American forces in the Balkans in the late 1990’s and in Afghanistan in 2001 has been outstanding. And the military has wielded new weapons and new concepts in these recent campaigns that it did not possess during Desert Storm: several types of guided weapons, unmanned aerial vehicles, near-real-time communications systems.

There were some setbacks. The Clinton administration misused military power during its first year in office in Somalia and then in Haiti; the results were needless American deaths in the first instance and a poorly planned, aborted mission in the second. Morale was low, and recruitment and retention posed problems. Cuts in defense spending to help balance the federal budget went too far in some cases—until the Republican Congress stepped in and insisted on adding money for the Pentagon. And the Clinton administration and the uniformed military struggled with how to sustain numerous small missions overseas without overusing certain parts of the armed forces.

Despite these problems, which put a drag on military readiness, statistical measures of combat preparedness—the condition of equipment, training standards met by pilots and troops, aptitude scores and experience levels of personnel—compared relatively favorably with those in the Reagan years. And by the end of Mr. Clinton’s second term, increases in pay and innovations in the force structure helped to resolve some of the morale, recruiting and retention problems that had been serious in the mid-90’s.

Of course, the main credit for the quality of America’s military must go to its own personnel. But the victory in Afghanistan, coming on the heels of the successful action against Serbia in 1999, shows that the Clinton administration maintained a strong and focused military able to carry out a post-cold war mission.