Bill Clinton and the Decline of the Military

President Bush has officially put a stake into the heart of the “peace dividend”—all that money we were going to save because the Cold War ended. Bush now says he believes the Army and Marine Corps should be expanded.

With the world the way it is, a lot of people agree with Bush. But take a look back to the days of his father’s administration and the presidency of Bill Clinton. The world was a nasty place then, too. But during that period, we went through years of declining military budgets. For my book “Clear Moral Objectives,” I built a timeline of what was happening in the world and how we addressed those events with our Defense Department budgets.

Pick up the story with newly-sworn-in President Bill Clinton’s first budget, submitted on March 27, 1993. He asked for $263.4 billion—$10 billion less than the final budget under the first President Bush. The budget scrapped most funds for President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, called “Star Wars” by the media.

After all, Clinton lived by his slogan: “It’s the economy, stupid!”

At that time, the U.S. was still involved in a humanitarian mission to Somalia that turned bad when eighteen of our solders were killed in a gunfight and one of them was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.  

Clinton deployed troops to several other trouble spots around the world including Haiti, Bosnia, and the former Yugoslavia. He also launched twenty-three Tomahawk cruise misses at Iraq, ostensibly in retaliation for a threat on the life of George H.W. Bush.

In 1994, troops were sent to Haiti, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Clinton asked for a Defense increase of just $2.8 billion but Congress approved a decrease of $17.1 billion. The shrinking budget caused sharp reductions at the Pentagon.

There were more peacekeeping missions to come, including in Somalia where 1,800 Marines provided cover for the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers. But the downsizing of the military continued with 40,000 troops removed from Europe. The Base Closure Commission recommended shuttering 79 more bases. Clinton’s budget request for fiscal 1996 was $10.2 billion lower than the prior year.

At this point, we are well into the Clinton presidency and the eleventh straight year of declining military budgets. The president and the Congress have slashed the defense budget to the point where, after adjusting for inflation, it is some 40% less than in 1985 during the second Reagan term.

The year 1996 saw cruise missile strikes against Iraq and 18,000 U.S. troops stationed in the Balkans as part of a NATO force. Clinton sent the U.S. aircraft carrier Independence and three other ships to the Taiwan Strait because of tensions between Taiwan and China. For 1997, Clinton sought another $10 billion reduction, though the bill he eventually signed set aside $244 billion for defense—finally halting the long string of declining budgets, but just barely.

It was a bit calmer overseas in 1997, though 8,500 Americans were still keeping the peace in Bosnia. The Defense budget rose to $268 billion but Clinton proposed more base closures. The Senate rejected the recommendation.

In 1998, the U.S. and Britain struck military targets in Iraq because Saddam Hussein refused to cooperate with UN weapons inspectors. Clinton also launched missiles against targets in Afghanistan and the Sudan. These attacks came on August 20, three days after Clinton admitted on TV that he had misled the nation about “that woman.”

Defense Secretary William Cohen had become concerned about his budget, and so he called for more base closings—and more money. The Joint Chiefs said that unless funding levels could be increased, some weapons systems or overseas deployments would have to be eliminated. In 1999, the budget was at $250 billion—the same year we were using our military to halt Slobodan Milosevic’s “ethnic cleansing” in Kosovo.

For fiscal 2000, Defense requested $267.2 billion billion, including a pay raise for soldiers. The USS Cole was bombed and peacekeeping efforts continued in the usual spots like Kosovo and Bosnia. Clinton’s presidency was winding down and his final Defense budget totaled $288 billion with a supplemental bill of $6.5 billon to help pay for all the peacekeeping.

After Bush was elected and the country had suffered the 9/11 attacks, former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger said Clinton had cut back the military so much that we might not be able to fight a war on terrorism on several fronts. He listed the problems brought on during the Clinton years:  lost air and sea lift capacity, two or three years during which nothing was procured for the military, and cuts in R&D.

Now, in the waning days of his presidency, Bush is ready to rebuild. It’s not the economy, stupid, and there is no peace dividend. The world’s remaining superpower cannot run its military on the cheap.