03 February 2006

Bill Clinton v. George W. Bush: The Military

Bill Clinton will be remembered in the history books as a peace and prosperity President who balanced the budget. George W. Bush has made clear that he is a war president, the economy has struggled during his tenure, and the federal budget deficit has soared.

One would expect to have seen a huge difference between in the size of the military between the two administrations, as one has in every other significant war fought in the history of the United States. Compare the number of active duty military personnel in 2001, the last year impacted by Bill Clinton's policies, and the number of active duty military personnel in 2005.

The overall number has increased, but by only 0.6%. The Army's personnel levels are up 2% from 2001. The Air Force personnel levels are up 2% from 2001. The Navy personnel levels are down 3.5% from 2001. And, the Marines personnel levels are up 2.6% from 2001. Moreover, both 2004 and 2005 have seen reductions in active duty personnel levels from the preceding year. The difference of course, is that since the 2001 figures, Bush was commenced two wars, one in Afghanistan and another in Iraq.

It appears that these numbers do not include reserve and guard troops called up on active duty. The figures available to me show about 221,300 reserve and guard troops called up at any one time to fight in Iraq (or replace troops that are doing so), an increase of about 15.9% over the size of the force without them. The additional personnel has come almost entirely from the guard and reserves, despite the fact that the President refuses to talk about a withdrawal schedule, the Department of Defense is talking about "the Long War", and that one admiral has told troops to hunker down for a thirty year conflict (hyperbole, perhaps, but also hardly the words of an official who thinks this is a temporary drain on military resources). There is a disconnect between the time frames in administration rhetoric which talk about being in Iraq for years or even decades, and the administration's actions, which has been looking to sources available for only brief time, to fight the conflict.

The word on the street is that the Quadrennial Defense Review does little to change this state affairs, defeating expectations that the size of the Army would be increased, through corresponding decreases in the size of the far less stressed Navy and Air Force. It is gearing up to fight a major war with China, not extended counterinsurgency missions in the Middle East.

Spending has not been so stable. In 2001, the Defense budget was $307.9 billion. In 2005, it was $400.1 billion, excluding expenses for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is an increase of 30%. Again, this is not spending for the wars (the administration estimates that war expenses will be $120 billion on top of the regular defense budget in 2006). This is largely spending on some very expensive high tech weapons systems irrelevant to the troops fighting in the Middle East right now. There is no sense in hte administration's budgets and planning that the nation needs to sacrifice, either domestically or in the military itself, to make resources available for the most urgent priority of the moment, which is managing the Iraq conflict.

One could imagine theoretically how an expensive, smaller, high tech military could be good policy. But, it doesn't appear that this is the reality that U.S. troops are facing. Does it really make sense to start a major ship and submarine building push when you are fighting two wars in virtually landlocked countries? Saber rattling at Iran and Syria also doesn't appear to justify this kind on investment. Aren't there more urgent needs? Like retaining skilled non-commissioned officers, and insuring that every soldier in the warzone has absolutely everything that he (or she) needs? It will be interesting to see if Congress can make any more sense of the administration's approach than I can. I suspect that Congressional meddling, in the face of a less than clear plan for either the Iraq War or long term planning for the military, will be at a high point in 2006.

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