The Corner

On Kicking a–

I apologize for my tardiness in responding to a question Ramesh asked on the Corner a few days ago. If Clinton was so bad for defense, he asked, why did our military do so well in Iraq? Nancy Pelosi made the same point recently, as did others a year ago after the US success in Afghanistan, and it is a fair question.

The first point to make is that in defense matters, as in economic ones, there is often a lag between cause and effect. The Clinton economic “boom” was really a consequence of changed fundamental attributable to the Reagan economic revolution. The situation is similar with regard to defense. During the Clinton years, the military could live off of the capital created by the modernization that took place in the 1980s thanks to the Reagan defense buildup.

But something else happened in both arenas that sustained existing trends beyond what analysts predicted at the time: the information revolution. Hi tech fueled the Clinton boom. It also helped to transform the military before “transformation” became a Pentagon buzz word. Although his acolytes have tried, Clinton cannot take credit for these exogenous changes in the environment.

Finally, we forget that it was the Congress elected in 1994 that insisted on increases in defense funding. Here’s what Michael O’Hanlon said in a piece PRAISING Clinton.

the Clinton administration misused military power during its first year in office in Somalia and then in Haiti….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 an insisted on adding money for the Pentagon.

Thus the real Clinton legacy was low morale, recruitment and retention problems, and cuts in defense spending while increasing the demands on the force. But the U.S. military is a resourceful and innovative organization. Throughout history, soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines have learned to cope with problems created by politicians who want defense on the cheap. I would argue that the military has done as well as it has recently in spite of Clinton rather than because of him.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is senior national security fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, editing its journal Orbis from 2008 to 2020. A Marine Corps infantry veteran of the Vietnam War, he was a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College from 1987 to 2015. He is the author of US Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.


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