Clinton’s Afghan Triumph?

My Beltway friend was furious. “Every cocktail party I go to, the liberals are claiming it was Bill Clinton’s military that won Afghanistan.” “Glad we go to different parties,” rejoindered I from Seattle.

Then I started hearing it on television, and noticed a similar claim in, of all places, The Washington Times. According to Morton Kondracke’s column of Feb. 4, “Arguably, even Mr. Bush’s ability to fight a robust war on terrorism is an outgrowth of actions taken by the Clinton administration. The high-tech weaponry used so effectively in Afghanistan was developed and acquired on Mr. Clinton’s watch. Five of the six members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were appointed by Mr. Clinton (sic!), as was the war’s regional commander, Gen. Tommy Franks.”
Morton . . . Morton . . . Morton . . . 

Let’s deal with this latest version of left-wing “Spin the People” before it goes any further.
It is, of course, true, that we’ve fought since September 11 with the military available. Vice President Dick Cheney likes to point out that the Desert Storm victory of 1991 was done with the forces laid on 10 years before – 20 and 30 years before, in many instances, given the long lead times required to field new weaponry and work out new tactics and doctrines. If we’re going to credit Mr. Clinton, let’s not forget Presidents Bush (senior), Reagan, Carter (stealth technology), Ford, Nixon, Johnson, Kennedy (for invigorating the Green Berets), and Eisenhower (for the B-52s). As for how much of that high-tech weaponry was actually “developed and acquired on Mr. Clinton’s watch” . . . let’s see the list.
More importantly, four other factors make the Clinton-gets- the-credit claim at best laughable, and at worst obscene.
First, the U.S. military, despite all the brilliant improvising, has barely been engaged, let alone tested. And a good thing, too, for Mr. Clinton left it hollow. In Pentagonese, hollowness means a force in which the first tier units and special operations forces are good to go, but there ain’t much available backup. Air power provides a fine example. The carriers have done fine. Air Force short-range tactical aviation (F-15s, F-16s, A-10s) has played a minuscule role so far, but not just because convenient bases are lacking. Ten years of punching holes in the skies over Iraq, not to mention Kosovo and other contingencies, have worn the planes out. The tanker and transport fleets are in similar condition.
Another example: the almost total noncommitment of ground forces. What if we had needed a few divisions there? What if we need a few divisions there or somewhere else in a hurry? And note the extreme selectivity of the reserve call-up so far. The Clinton administration severely damaged the National Guard and reserves by overuse in the Balkans and elsewhere. An awful lot of good people have gotten out or not signed on, especially in the National Guard, which carries an unlimited state responsibility as well as a federal mission.
Second, Mr. Clinton’s tandem of force reductions and overcommitment contributed mightily to what became known as the “Defense Death Spiral.” For too many years, all those MOOTW (Military Operations Other Than War) were funded out of regular appropriations. This resulted in “the recurring migration of funds” — maintenance money transferred to operating accounts, Research & Development (R&D) money shifted to maintenance, and so on, until nothing got done very well. Under Mr. Clinton, R&D languished hideously. We’re paying for it. The 1990s should have been a period of intense experimentation and development, leading to vigorous transformation now. Instead, we’re barely getting started under Donald Rumsfeld.
Third, let it be said: All those good men and women who stayed in during Mr. Clinton’s tenure did so despite him, not because of him. Not so long ago, military frustration levels were catatonic and civilian career opportunities both lucrative and plentiful. Those who wear the uniform today deserve eternal gratitude for their services as a “saving remnant” throughout the 1990s. It’s happened before. The remnant of the 1920s and 1930s included Marshall, Eisenhower, Nimitz, Patton. Those who stayed in after Vietnam gave us Desert Storm – and Enduring Freedom. Bill Clinton did not.
Finally, the Clinton military legacy includes the belief, so globally popular until four months ago, that the United States, despite its hardware, was unable to make serious war. “Black Hawk Down.” Kosovo. The failure to respond seriously to the Khobar Towers or the African embassy bombings, or to the USS Cole. An occasional salvo of precision-guided something-or-others at inconsequential or erroneous targets; a lot of blather about “justice.” But nothing to deter or even bother a Saddam Hussein or an Osama bin Laden. 

And thus, perhaps, Mr. Clinton’s real military legacy: The wars that might have been avoided, the wars that we must fight, now that he’s gone.

Philip Gold is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute.

Philip Gold

Dr. Philip Gold is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, and director of the Institute's Aerospace 2010 Project. A former Marine, he is the author of Evasion,: The American Way of Military Service and over 100 articles on defense matters. He teaches at Georgetown University and is a frequent op-ed contributor to several newspapers. Dr. Gold divides his time between Seattle and Washington, D.C.