Clinton-Gore Defense Policy Was on Target

Michael E. O’Hanlon

By all accounts, most military officers plan to support George W. Bush in this year’s presidential race. Other pro-defense voters show similar preferences, to the point where Bush leads Al Gore by 2 to 1 among voters who rank national defense a top priority in the 2000 campaign. Concerned about what they see as an underfunded, overworked military, these voters want change.

The massive rush of military brass and other pro-defense voters to the Republican side makes little substantive sense. It seems motivated more by nostalgia for the past and anger at President Clinton than any fair comparison between Bush and Gore.

It is true that today’s military is showing signs of wear and tear and that overall readiness has declined from the years of the Bush presidency. Notably, the readiness levels of many types of aircraft have dropped by about 10 percentage points over the past decade. But while Bush and former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney deserve credit for paying attention to these troublesome facts, they badly overstate the severity of the problem. By most measures—the condition of equipment, the rigor of training, the experience and skill levels of troops—today’s military is just as good as that of the mid-1980s. Those who doubt it need only recall the outstanding recent performances of U.S. military personnel in the skies of Iraq and Serbia, the mud of Bosnia and the waters of the Persian Gulf and the Taiwan Strait. The U.S. military downsizing of the last decade, made possible by the end of the Cold War, clearly has been the most successful in the nation’s history.

Morale is admittedly weaker today than under presidents Reagan and Bush because of long hours of work and frequent deployments away from home and families.

But that fact does not necessarily translate into an overwhelming case for Bush. Although he has assembled a strong team of military advisors, he plans to allocate less money to the armed forces over the next 10 years than Gore, if the two campaigns’ budget plans are to be believed. The difference amounts to only 2% of the defense budget, but it is real money—about $5 billion a year.

Moreover, Bush has pledged to spend substantial sums to deploy a multi-layer missile defense, meaning that less money would be available for bread-and-butter military issues such as pay, training and spare parts.

The Clinton-Gore legacy on military readiness is also better than some understand. Congress deserves much of the credit for keeping readiness high in recent years too. Yet however one allocates the political credit, inflation-adjusted military pay is higher now than when the Clinton-Gore era began eight years ago.

Spending on training, spare parts and other basic necessities has gone up substantially as well and is now the highest in the country’s history on a per troop basis. As a result of such measures, a number of readiness metrics have improved of late. After a rough spell in the late 1990s, the military services met their major recruiting and retention goals this year.

Republicans charge that the Clinton administration has badly overused the military, wantonly deploying forces for ill-defined purposes in regions of little strategic importance to the U.S. Bush says that he would curtail such deployments, easing the burden on a tired U.S. military.

To be sure, the Clinton administration mishandled the Somalia operation seven years ago. And its intervention in Haiti, even if successful militarily, has not produced a thriving democracy south of our borders, though it is hard to blame the Clinton administration for that fact, or for giving Haitians a chance to take charge of their own lives.

These issues are now history. Today, U.S. military forces are deployed away from families and homes in significant numbers in only six places: Korea, Okinawa, the waters of the western Pacific Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, the Persian Gulf region and the Balkans. All are in areas of substantial strategic interest to the U.S. All but the last predate the Clinton administration. Bush and Cheney have only offered ideas for how to reduce the deployment to the Balkans. Yet that deployment is already quite modest and has played a hand in pacifying a region important to the U.S. while contributing at least indirectly to the downfall of Serb despot Slobodan Milosevic as well.

Military officers have every right to their own political views. Yet by their collective public posture, they should not suggest to the American people that there is an obvious pro-defense candidate in this year’s presidential race. In fact, there are two.