Man Without Qualities

Friday, April 11, 2003

Best-trained, Best-equipped, Best-led?

Nancy Pelosi repeats a line that other liberals and Democrats - including the thoughtful Matt Miller - have also offered:

"This best-trained, best-equipped, best-led force for peace in the history of the world was not invented in the last two years. This had a strong influence and strong support during the Clinton years."

Or, as Mr. Miller puts it:

The main truth it underscores is how divorced the defense debate is from real life. The myth that Democrats are "weak on defense" and the GOP is "strong" is one that Democratic strategists have struggled with for years. The reality is that Bill Clinton's defense budgets roughly tracked the blueprint left by then-defense secretary Dick Cheney in 1992. But politics explains why Bill Clinton insisted the Pentagon maintain a Cold War budget even without a Cold War, to protect his party's right flank.

How true are such claims? Mr. Clinton was indeed President and Commander-in-Chief for 8 years. And it does seem as though a good deal of technological and perhaps other progress has been made in the United States military since the beginning of 1992, the year Mr. Clinton became President.

But it is certainly not true that Mr. Clinton insisted the Pentagon maintain a Cold War budget. In fact, Peter Schweizer, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, correctly wrote this at the end of 2000:

Beginning in the early 1950s and throughout the cold war, America spent on average 6–8 percent of its gross national product (GNP) on defense, regardless of whether a Democrat or a Republican was in the Oval Office. It briefly dropped slightly below 5 percent in 1977–78 only to rise again. With the end of the cold war, defense spending declined dramatically beginning in 1990. By 1996 it had dropped to 3 percent of GNP and today is even lower. The United States is now [that is, 2000] spending less on defense as a percentage of GNP than anytime since the Great Depression.

Indeed, Mr. Schweizer points out that much of the Clinton era federal budget surpluses could be explained by reductions in the defense budget, and goes on to point out:

America no longer needs a cold war-level defense budget. But there is plenty of evidence that defense cuts have gone too far. There are ample reports of spare parts shortages and cutbacks in training due to concerns about cost. It is also increasingly difficult to retain quality officers and senior enlisted personnel. In part this reflects the hot civilian job market, but surveys also indicate that frustration is high and morale is low in the armed forces. ... Research and development in the defense arena requires a long lead time. We need to fund research projects that will provide weapons for our soldiers fifteen years from now.

That long lead time poses a major problem for those such as Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Miller wishing to assert that Mr. Clinton's acts promoted adequate national defense. Simply put: Whatever technological advances occurred in the military over the Clinton years were bound to depend on research and development conducted previously. That is nothing new. The advances of the Reagan years consisted mostly of implementing technology existing at the time Mr. Reagan took office and expenditure increases. Correspondingly, if the Clinton Administration degraded the military, one would expect to find the consequences of that degradation in reduced research and development efforts and reduced military expenditures.

As already noted, military expenditures did decline under Mr. Clinton. But some reduction in military expenditures following the Cold War obviously was appropriate - and had begun under George H.W. Bush. The cuts were implemented by a Democratic-controlled Congress, but without much resistance from that President. The correct question in this area is: Did the reductions in military expenditures go too far and, if so, who was responsible? Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has spelled out some details:

"The coasting went on too long," Rumsfeld told reporters during a briefing June 27. "Underfunding in significant accounts has created a series of shortfalls with respect to very important key categories." Shipbuilding is on a path to a "steady state" of 230 vessels, he said. "I'm not in the position to say at this moment exactly what number of ships we need in the United States Navy, but it is very clear that it is considerably more than 230 ships." The Navy currently has 310. ... "We have an aging aircraft fleet in all the services," Rumsfeld said. Infrastructure is in the same situation. He said private firms recapitalize their facilities every 57 years. DOD, with its historic buildings, would probably want to recapitalize every 67 years. "We're currently up in the 190-years recapitalization," he said. "We are not investing on an annual basis at a level sufficient to deal with the obvious problems that happen to all types of buildings, sewers, roads -- all the things that are necessary for a large enterprise like the defense establishment." ... "The point is that you can simply not do everything in a single year," he said. "There is no way that it can be done. It took years to get into this circumstance, and it's going to take some years to get out of it."

Mr. Rumsfeld's examples seem pretty damning on the expenditure side. And many others believe that the United States military is simply overstreched and underfunded:

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed and an interview on April 2 with The Washington Times, Gen. McCaffrey, a Democrat who has been sharply critical of the Pentagon's handling of the current Iraq campaign, ... observes that much of the deployable ground combat power of the Army and the Marine Corps is likely to be tied up in Iraq for another year (and that's probably a low estimate). In addition, more than 240,000 troops are already deployed in other areas of the world, including Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, Bosnia, Kosovo, the Sinai and South Korea. Gen. McCaffrey is particularly compelling and forceful on North Korea. He emphasized the need to make it clear to North Korea that it would be making a huge mistake to assume that the United States is bogged down in Iraq and therefore unable to respond to new threats from Pyongyang -- either against South Korea or the 37,000 American troops stationed there. The United States, he says, would be inviting trouble on its strategic flanks if international troublemakers conclude that we lack the military power -- or political will -- to respond to threats.

But there's a big issue here: Congress, not the President, ultimately controls spending. And Congress was in Republican hands from 1995 to the end of Mr. Clinton's term. It is true that Congress is not set up to instigate all forms of defense expenditure decisions - cooperation and leadership of the President is essential. But Congress routinely alters Presidential requests substantially. I find it hard to accept that the Republican Congress does not share substantial responsibility for defense expenditures levels following the 1994 election.

What about technology research and development? How much did the Clinton Administration do to advance or restrain research and development? That question seems to me much more difficult than the expenditure question. Of course, one can to some extent look at the military research and development budgets – although they (or at least their public versions) are often said to be unreliable because of secrecy issues. Also, technology research and development is largely driven by proposals from the military itself (although defense contractors can also speak to Congress directly). And the President appoints the people who do the proposing and endorsing of research and development. If the President lets the military brass know that he doesn't want them proposing too many research and development projects that might result in big defense appropriations, then it is unrealistic to think the military will defy the President too much. Many promising research projects originate with defense contractors. But if the military signals to such contractors that new research projects will not be enthusiastically endorsed by the military itself, the contractors will likely look elsewhere.

Was there a Clintonian "lobotomizing" of the military, an instilled reticence to seek out, endorse or advance promising research projects on the part of the military and/or defense contractors? For what it's worth, the Man Without Qualities personally knows some rather high operatives concerned with military research and development. While they, of course, do not share confidential information and they are discrete and often evasive, it has been my distinct impression that they do believe that the military knew much more than they proposed during the Clinton years with respect to weapons research. That reticence has now mostly ended, of course. Perhaps a Congressional or outside study could determine more. But such studies tend to become hopelessly politicized and/or technical. I'm therefore not convinced that a case can be made one way or the other on this issue that would be sufficiently clear to present to the voting public - as opposed to a much smaller community of the informed, interested and willing.

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