"Itís a terribly hard job to spend a billion dollars and get your moneyís worth."
     -- George M. Humphrey, U.S. Treasury Secretary, February 23, 1954.
"According to some estimates, we cannot track $2.3 trillion in transactions."
    
-- Donald H. Rumsfeld, U.S. Defense Secretary, September 10, 2001.

 

Clipped Wings
Posted October 25, 2005 | Link

Itís common knowledge that Republicans are more bullish on national defense than Democrats. After all, this is what the Republicans have been claiming ever since Reagan won the Cold War. Regardless of whether you accept this or not, you should know that this belief is based solely on a highly effective marketing campaign.

It was the Democrats, after all, that brought us into World Wars I and II, the Korean War, and Vietnam. It was Truman that established the Department of Defense and dropped the atomic bomb. While Jimmy Carter was focused more on inflation than on armed conflict, it was he that started our clandestine funding of the Mujahideen that would help drain the resources of the Soviet Union during their failed invasion of Afghanistan. Bill Clinton helped end the crisis in Kosovo by bringing Milosevic to justice with almost no NATO casualties. All of these actions are hardly the hallmark of a party that is soft on defense or adverse to conflict. On the contrary, a pacifist would probably declare the Democratic Party to be a bunch of warmongers if they tallied up the real costs, in dollars and lives, of their actions over the past century.

The economic imbalance between the parties is just as great. Since the official launch of the Department of Defense in 1949, Democrats have increased spending on defense by an average of 67% over the budgets they inherited. The average Republican increase during this same period, over the Democrats they followed, is practically zero. To be fair, this lackluster Republican performance has been due to the simple fact that they have tended to take office after major armed conflicts, when budgets are typically being reduced. For example, Eisenhower took office only six months before the Korean War was over. Similarly, Nixon and Ford exited Vietnam after it became politically necessary to do so. It wasnít until Ronald Reagan came along that the Republicans would have a defensive leg to stand on.

Unfortunately, Reaganís record was less impressive than the Republicans had hoped. While he continues to get credit for outspending the Soviets on defense during the 1980s, a strategy that actually did help to sink their economy, the truth is that a good part of this buildup was launched under the Carter administration and was simply continued by Reagan. Itís easy to prove this, since Reagan could not have significantly impacted the defense budget until fiscal year 1982, and the buildup in question started between FY 1979 and 1980.

Another problem of the Reagan legacy was his quiet cutback of new defense procurements starting in FY 1986. By the time he left office, these procurements had fallen to FY 1982 levels; when the first President Bush left office, they were well below FY 1980 levels. In addition, Bush was saddled with the responsibility of dismantling much of our Cold War apparatus when the Soviet Union disbanded. This upheaval led to a 12% reduction in defense spending in FY 1991óthe largest one-year cut since the end of the Korean War. Unfortunately, this cut came during the 1990-91 recession and cost Bush the election.

This is when the Republicans started trumpeting their strong posture on defense. Finally, after decades of Democratic dominance, they could point to the breakup of the Soviet Union and claim a victory of sorts. Ironically, the collapse of the Soviet Union seems to have been forecast by only a few people at the CIA or in the Political Science community, so this seems more like excellent hindsight rather than good strategy. Nonetheless, the Republicans needed a new platform and they knew that Bill Clinton would be inheriting a chaotic military establishment that was still maintaining Vietnam-era spending levels on top of a nine-year decline in new procurement contracts.

Frustratingly, Clinton turned things around. He cut the post-Cold War defense budget by a modest 12% overall and became the first president since Truman to leave office with a net surplus. More importantly, he increased the amount of defense procurement contracts by 25%, which had the double effect of stimulating the private sector defense industry while paving the way for upgrades in military technology. A testament to this approach came during our recent operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, where veterans of the 1991 Gulf War cited numerous improvements in equipment and trainingómost of which would not have been possible without Clintonís investments in defense.

Today, we have a president that seems to have almost no idea what to do with our military. Spending is up and there is always lots of action, but we are not seeing results and there is little hope that we will be successful in our endeavors. The bottom line is that we cannot continue to borrow billions of dollars each month from China, Japan, and Saudi Arabia simply to fund these adventures. Is this the future of the American military? Your guess is as good as mine.

You can continue to think of Republicans as the party of national defense and fiscal control and the Democrats as the party of pacifists and spenders, but donít let any of the facts get in your way.

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