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When in Doubt, Blame Clinton

September 9th, 2007

Josh Marshall has a spot-on review of the resurgence of Clinton-bashing (Bill Clinton, that is) among Republican candidates recently. The short story is that, like Bush did in 2000, Giuliani and Thompson are now blaming all the woes of our military on the Clinton administration. And it is just as bogus a charge now as it was in 2000.

Apparently nobody remembers that Bush Sr. was the one to institute the “Peace Dividend” and established the policy of a smaller military:

The peace dividend is a political slogan popularized by US President George H.W. Bush and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the early 1990s, purporting to describe the economic benefit of a decrease in defense spending. … The term was frequently used at the end of the Cold War, when many Western nations significantly cut military spending.

Clinton merely followed in Bush 41’s footsteps–but Bush 41 was the one who truly “gutted” the military, if that’s what one calls it. Back in July, Mitt Romney also blamed Clinton for cutting the military, and FactCheck.org took him to task for it:

It is not correct to say that the Clinton administration began to cut U.S. military forces. No matter how you measure defense spending, President George H.W. Bush had significantly trimmed it by the time Clinton was sworn in. And it was Bush’s administration, not Clinton’s, that first boasted of a “peace dividend.”

In fact, Bush cut military spending more than Clinton did. Check out this chart:


In constant dollars, Bush 41 cut defense spending by $59 billion per year; Clinton cut defense spending by $43 billion per year. And guess which Bush 41 administration official said this:

[O]verall, since I’ve been secretary, we will have taken the five-year defense program down by well over $300 billion. That’s the peace dividend.… And now we’re adding to that another $50 billion … of so-called peace dividend.

If you guessed “Dick Cheney,” you’d be right.

Now, you might argue that Bush 41 cut the defense budget all that it should have and Clinton went overboard and cut more than he should have. Except that it’s not true. When Bush 41 left office, he left behind guidelines for defense spending through 1997, which called for a further 19% cut in defense spending. Spending under Clinton was cut less than Bush 41 dictated, and then was raised again after 1997. A post-Cold-War report explains:

Not only was the drawdown of the 1990s clearly a bipartisan affair, the best available evidence suggests that Democrats and Republicans are still [in the year 2000] remarkably close in terms of their support for defense spending.

The fact of the matter is, Clinton left George W. Bush a far stronger military than Bush has produced today, despite Bush Jr.’s stratospheric defense spending. Besides which, if the best efforts of Republicans to rebuild the military in a wartime footing have failed miserably, despite having seven years to do the job, isn’t it a bit late to be blaming someone from the previous century?

After all, as you’ll note in the chart above, Bush 43 has ballooned defense spending by $118 billion (in constant 2000 dollars), or by 40%, to levels higher even than the peak of the Reagan years. After pouring all that money into the military, why is it far less healthy today than it was in 2000? Maybe conservatives are right when they say that “simply throwing money at the problem won’t fix it.” Too bad they only say that when it comes to education, and not when it comes to defense.

Despite Dubya’s rantings in 2000, the military was just fine when Clinton gave it to Bush. Clinton did, after all, use it to fight and win two wars, and Clinton’s military performed brilliantly when Bush needed them to go into Afghanistan and later into Iraq. It was Bush’s mismanagement that later wrecked these two missions, and left the military in the mess it suffers today.

Our military is overtaxed today, with soldiers forced to go into combat without sufficient training or equipment, and to serve unreasonably long and numerous tours of duty–which explains why military recruitment is suffering a crisis, and why returning soldiers are suffering from post-traumatic stress, leading to higher suicide rates.

Romney, Giuliani, Thompson and other conservatives can try to blame Clinton as much as they want, it won’t make it true. Unfortunately, conservative politicians today are less about building truth than they are about building myths–and they’re damned good at it.

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