Originally Published: December 31, 2003 6:10 p.m.
C.R. Shoemaker's Nov. 13 "Talk of the Town" painted a dire picture of U.S. military forces.
He accused former President Clinton of gutting the armed forces on three levels: money, troop reductions and morale. He argues that Mr. Clinton's personal failings and the assignment of women to combat units were important factors in the alleged reductions in morale.
He finds fault with Sen. Hillary Clinton for arguing that her husband deserves credit for the armed forces that were victorious in Iraq.
I would like to give another perspective on our nation's defense posture and Mr. Clinton's role in its development.
There was wide agreement when Mr. Clinton took office in 1993 for reducing American military forces from their Cold War levels. In fact, the first Bush administration already had made major inroads in these reductions, in part to lessen the enormous federal budget deficits that Mr. Bush's and the previous two Republican administrations had inflicted on the nation.
Mr. Clinton did not understand the military very well, and he made serious missteps early in his administration. His opposition to the Vietnam War, and his avoidance of service also rankled the career military. His reprehensible personal behavior was an exacerbating factor.
It is also well to recall that in the '70s, '80s and '90s women were entering many careers from which they had been excluded. This phenomenon, including the integration of women into the military as equals to men, was not a Clinton social experiment, but an irresistible force in our society.
In this setting, it fell to the Clinton administration to complete the reconfiguration of the armed forces. When this reconfiguration was completed, manpower was about two-thirds of its Cold War level. Defense budgets dropped from $391 billion in 1989 to $296 billion in 1999, or about 25 percent. Still, during Clinton's time in office, we spent more than $2 trillion on defense. In 1997 our defense budget was at least 17 times the combined spending of North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Cuba, often cited as our most likely adversaries.
While these adjustments were taking place, a revolution was occurring, supported by the Clinton administration, which created a defense establishment with more capability than the one used in the first Persian Gulf War in 1991. This revolution stemmed in part from developments such as cheap satellite guided precision munitions. These weapons vastly increased the effectiveness of air power. Improved reconnaissance and communications capabilities were powerful complements to these new weapons. And the services found ways to integrate the combat capabilities of the Army, Navy, the Marine Corps and Air Force.
All these developments, along with the fighting spirit of U.S. soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen, were impressively on display in the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq despite the presence of women in combat units.
Clearly, Mr. Shoemaker's allegation that toward the end of the Clinton administration America's state of preparedness was nearing pre-World War II levels wildly under-estimates these forces.
Moreover, the Republicans took over both houses of Congress in 1995, just two years into Mr. Clinton's first term. It proposed to spend $1.639 trillion on U.S. military forces over the six-year period 1997–2002. By comparison, the Clinton plan would have spent $1.616 trillion, or only 1.4 percent less, hardly enough difference to work major changes in the armed forces! Thus the Republican Congress deserves part of the credit or, as Mr. Shoemaker would have it, part of the blame for our armed forces at the end of the Clinton administration.
Mr. Shoemaker also blames the Clinton administration for the loss of 18 soldiers in 1993 in the famous Black Hawk Down episode in Mogadishu. But Mr. Shoemaker's judgment in this matter is at odds with that of Maj. Gen. William F. Garrison, who commanded U.S. forces in that ill-fated raid.
The powerful air forces employed in Iraq, the 3rd Infantry Division, the lst Marine Division, the 101st Airborne Division, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the 4th Infantry Division, did not magically materialize when Mr. George W. Bush took office. They are the products of years of development, planning, investment and training, much of which occurred on Mr. Clinton's watch.
So Senator Hillary Clinton is right to argue that President Clinton deserves at least some of the credit for these magnificent forces.
(Archie L. Wood is a Prescott resident, a retired Air Force officer and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Nixon administration.)