Senator Hillary Clinton recently gave a speech in Aliquippa, Pa., outlining her “solutions for strengthening America’s military.” She proposes a speedy withdrawal from Iraq regardless of the consequences on the ground, returning the Reserves to peacetime status, giving the troops enhanced GI Bill benefits, and huge new spending on VA health care. Now, it is important, for a lot of reasons, to sustain good compensation and benefits for America’s servicemen and women, but that is not primarily what national power is about. America’s Armed Forces are a military service, not a social service; Senator Clinton’s “solutions” are the kind of thing someone might suggest who was running for commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of, say, Denmark, notable chiefly because they show how far removed the Left is from taking cognizance of, much less preparing for, real threats to American security around the world.
Like her rival Senator Barack Obama, Senator Clinton acts as if there are no important objectives for the mission in Iraq. The purpose of the mission was to remove Saddam Hussein and replace him with a popularly elected government that would be an ally in the war on terrorism. It was evident ten years ago that the United States was going to have to do something about Saddam because he represented an organic threat to the security of the Mideast and because it was becoming increasingly costly and dangerous to contain him through air power and the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia. Even the Clinton administration in its last two years was stepping up its rhetoric against Saddam. The democratic government in Iraq is a vast improvement, if for no other reason than what it is not doing: It is not restarting a nuclear weapons program, invading its neighbors, using weapons of mass destruction on hundreds of thousands of its own people, or training and sponsoring terrorists in the region. Moreover, if the allied Coalition can complete the process of building an effective army and police structure in country — and there is no question that the process has moved a long way in the last year — Iraq can be a working example of Muslim democracy and a bulwark against Iranian hegemony in the region.
In other words, whatever the costs of continuing the Iraqi mission, there are clearly costs to ending it prematurely as well, and any intelligent policy must at least attempt to balance the one against the other. That is what the Bush administration is trying to do now. While the administration has made mistakes in Iraq, and the mission there continues to be an ongoing burden, there is one thing that would clearly be worse than anything we have done or are doing now: If it turns out that we did it all for nothing, because the new president pulls out without recognizing the importance of stabilizing the new democracy or keeping faith with those in Iraq who have trusted our word and our honor.
Sen. Clinton rightly points out that the Reserve components of the Army are under stress. But the right answer is not to abandon the mission in Iraq. It is to reverse the cuts in American military strength that reduced the number of troops available for Iraq and for which her husband is largely responsible. In 1993, President Clinton cut the size of all three military services by one third to one half; the active Army, which had been sized at 18 divisions during operation Desert Storm, was reduced to 10 divisions by the mid-1990s, with the final and most dangerous reductions during the Clinton years. The risk to American security was not only foreseeable but was foreseen. At the time the cuts were made — even before the attacks on 9/11 made it clear that the military would have to fight a war against terror in addition to its other responsibilities — a panel of retired generals testified unanimously before Congress that the smaller Army would not have the flexibility it needed to carry out its missions without unacceptable levels of stress on the troops. The size of the Army was reduced anyway, and now the troops are paying the price.
The Clinton administration didn’t just cut the size of America’s military in the early 1990s; it also failed to supply and modernize the force that remained. It took what the defense community called at the time a “procurement holiday”; modernization budgets were cut, and the government bought only a fraction of the “platforms” — ships, planes, and tracked vehicles — that were necessary to maintain the existing inventory. As a result, the military is not just small; its inventory is rusty. For example, the average age of planes in the Air Force fleet is approaching 25 years old, compared to 9 years old during the Vietnam era. The B-52 bomber, which is still the Air Force’s main bomber, is over 50 years old; many of the C-5 cargo aircraft on which the military relies are 35-40 years old, with mission capable rates of 50 percent. (For a full explanation of the history and current condition of the Armed Services see my National Review cover story from March 5, 2007.)
The Bush administration increased funding for procurement somewhat in its early years, but not enough to stop the bleeding. The Heritage Foundation estimates that the government needs to spend a minimum of 40-50 billion dollars per year above current defense estimates on procurement and modernization; other defense experts, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Congressional Budget Office, say that even more will probably be necessary. Otherwise the United States risks not having capabilities that Americans have come to take for granted and that are necessary to stabilize crisis points throughout the world, like air to air superiority, control of the sea lanes, and the ability to project ground forces quickly and safely.
It is well within America’s capability to strengthen the military in this way; the necessary increase would bring spending on the regular military budget to approximately 4 percent of GDP, a historically low figure. So the issue is not resources; it is whether America’s leaders, primarily but not only on the Left, have the clarity to move beyond Vietnam-era assumptions about the legitimacy of American influence and recognize a simple reality: whether anyone here or abroad likes it or not, the progress of the international order towards human dignity depends on the reality and perception of American power.
Since the Cold War ended less than 20 years ago, America has sent its military on scores of small deployments and on four substantial combat missions: in Kuwait, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Notwithstanding what the extreme partisans on both sides may say, these deployments did not occur because of the fecklessness or aggressiveness of the three men who occupied the presidency during that time. They occurred because history has been thawing out with a vengeance since the Berlin Wall fell, as Secretary Bob Gates once said; the regional, religious, and ethnic rivalries that were suppressed during the Cold War have emerged and produced threats all over the world. Those threats run the gamut from genocidal maniacs (the government of Sudan), to developing military superpowers with hegemonic ambitions (China and Russia), to rogue dictatorships which possess nuclear weapons (North Korea and, soon, Iran), to transnational networks of religious fanatics whose vision of the future is a boot in everyone else’s face.
Those threats are not going away, no matter who is elected president or what foreign policy he or she adopts. Of course America should nurture strong relationships abroad and use the tools of international diplomacy. But walking softly can only work if we carry a big stick. That means being ready to fight, and whatever the imperatives of politics might require Senator Clinton to say, being ready means a lot more than pulling out of Iraq and expanding access to veterans’ health care.
– The Honorable Jim Talent is a distinguished fellow in military affairs at the Heritage Foundation. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives (1993–2001) and the U.S. Senate (2002–2007). He was a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and, for four years, chairman of the committee’s Seapower Subcommittee.