When he was running the Pentagon, James Schlesinger was fond of responding to his critics by saying that everyone is entitled to his or her own opinions but not to his or her own facts. Unfortunately, Condoleezza Rice ("Promoting the National Interest," January/February 2000) and Robert B. Zoellick ("A Republican Foreign Policy") ignore Schlesinger's dictum when describing the Clinton administration's impact on military spending and the state of U.S. armed forces.

According to Rice, the Bush administration "was able to reduce defense spending somewhat at the end of the Cold War," but the Clinton administration "witlessly accelerated and deepened these cuts." Actually, in the Bush administration's four years, defense spending fell by 18 percent -- more than 4 percent each year. In the Clinton administration's seven years, defense spending has fallen by slightly less than 10 percent, which is slightly more than 1 percent each year. Moreover, Rice conveniently ignores the six-year plan Bush presented to Congress in January 1993, which projected a continuing decline in defense spending through 1999. Clinton's actual defense budgets were $2 billion more than the final Bush defense plan for 1994-99, as Daniel Goure and Jeffrey Ranney explain in their new book, Averting the Defense Train Wreck in the New Millennium.

Rice then details the "devastating results" of Clinton's large cuts on the U.S. military. According to her, readiness has declined, training has suffered, pay has slipped 15 percent below civilian equivalents, the services are forced to cannibalize existing equipment, and the military has much difficulty recruiting and retaining people. Leaving aside whether these (at best, misleading) statements are true and resulted from Clinton's reductions, these conditions are not related to the amount of money spent on defense. The nonpay portion of the operations and maintenance account in the defense budget, which funds training, readiness, and maintenance, is 13 percent higher now than when Bush left office. Moreover, if the spending on operations and maintenance is calculated on a per capita basis, it is nearly 40 percent higher today than in 1993.

Rice also accuses the Clinton administration of cutting defense spending to its lowest point as a percentage of GDP since Pearl Harbor. Using shares of GDP as a measure of military capability is both meaningless and misleading. If Clinton had not presided over such an extraordinary period of economic growth, his current defense budget might account for four, instead of three, percent of GDP. Should he be castigated for helping the economy grow? By Rice's GDP standard, Jimmy Carter was better for defense than George Bush.

Most troubling is Rice's suggestion that the U.S. armed forces in 2000 resemble what they were in 1940. But 60 years ago, our military ranked 16th in the world (between Portugal and Romania), was one-tenth the size of Germany's military, and had only 1.6 percent of the world's military personnel. The best way to measure the adequacy of defense spending is to compare it with that of other nations. During the Clinton administration, the U.S. share of worldwide military spending has increased. America now outspends all of its adversaries or potential adversaries combined. Together with its allies, it accounts for nearly 80 percent of the world's military expenditures.

Zoellick is also off base in his critique of the Clinton administration. He writes that it has cut the military by around 40 percent. But it was the Bush administration that reduced the active forces by 444,000, or 21 percent, in four years, unlike Clinton, who cut it only 16 percent over seven years.

Reading Rice's and Zoellick's critiques of Clinton's defense budget reminds one of the early days of the Reagan administration, when several of the president's lieutenants complained about the 1970s as the "decade of neglect of defense spending." They should be reminded that in the first seven years of that decade, the Republicans were in charge and that during President Carter's tenure, defense spending actually increased.

Unfortunately, Rice's and Zoellick's "facts" found their way into presidential candidate George W. Bush's September 1999 speech on defense policy. If the governor becomes the chief executive, one hopes he will discover that the defense funding gap during the 2000 election is like the missile gap during the 1960 election. He should also read George Wilson's new book, which cites former Air Force Chief of Staff Ron Fogelman and former Army Deputy Chief of Staff Jay Gardner as stating that an annual defense budget of $250 billion, plus inflation, should be plenty for the armed services in the post-Cold War period if spent properly. (The budget is now $280 billion.) Finally, Bush should remember that during the Cold War, not a single Republican president, except Ronald Reagan, allowed defense spending to increase.

Lawrence Korb is Director of Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and was Assistant Secretary of Defense during the Reagan administration.


Lawrence Korb's protest of my facts reminds me of a dictum as well: If you find yourself with a mess on your hands, blame your predecessor. That is the essence of his defense of the Clinton administration.

Yes, defense spending declined during the Bush years in accordance with major reductions in American military personnel at the end of the Cold War. During such a big demobilization, 18 percent was not outrageous. It has been forgotten that the Democratic Congress thought the cuts not deep enough. The first Clinton budget was, by the way, nine percent below the Bush projections. What has happened since then? The cannibalization of equipment, pay scales inadequate to retain personnel, substandard housing, strained training budgets, and low morale are not imaginary. Read the congressional testimony of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the administration's testimony last year. Did the military's troubles occur overnight?

Indeed, the most irrelevant "fact" presented by Korb is the comparison of Bush's long-term projections with Clinton's actual budgets. Would Bush have increased the operations tempo of the military to the degree Clinton has? Would Bush then have carried through with projected cuts in defense spending and allowed the armed forces to reach the state they are now in? I rather doubt it.

But this is a moot point. Long-term projections are just that: projections. The defense budget is put together annually. George Bush has not been the commander-in-chief for seven years. So there are only two possible conclusions. Either Clinton's defense budgets have been inadequate or the Pentagon during his administration has been incompetent in managing resources. Both are probably true. If the Pentagon has not divided money properly, where has the secretary of defense been? In case Korb does not remember, the management of the Pentagon is also the administration's responsibility.

As to the low percentage of GDP spent on defense, this is simply a measure of the nation's priorities. It is not meant to be more. But Korb's analysis begs the question, Why in such good times was the military permitted to fall into this state?

Korb is also selective in the data he chooses. Operations and maintenance accounts are indeed nearly 13 percent higher now than in Bush's administration. Why? Largely because they have been funding the multiplying missions -- from Haiti to Bosnia to Kosovo -- this administration has assigned its military. These operations have been at the expense of procurement and research and development (R&D). Democratic members of the Senate Armed Services Committee recently sent a letter to the administration complaining about the lack of investment in defense R&D, which has stayed flat for several years. The operations and maintenance number exposes the shortsighted strategy that the administration's own undersecretary has called a "death spiral" -- robbing the future to pay for the present.

The Clinton administration has had seven years to build a military more robust and better suited to face post-Cold War challenges. It inherited a strong hand -- a military that won the Gulf War. Now, under congressional and electoral pressures, the president is sprinting to undo the damage he has inflicted on the armed forces. A two-term administration is responsible for what has happened on its watch. That is a fact no analysis can erase.

Condoleezza Rice is Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and Professor of Political Science at Stanford University. She is also foreign policy adviser to Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush.


Why defenders of the Clinton administration, after its more than seven years in office, still try to blame the administration's problems on a predecessor continues to baffle me. As Lawrence Korb writes, President Bush did indeed reduce the size of America's military after the Cold War ended. The question that Korb sidesteps is why President Clinton and Vice President Gore would continue the cuts, year after year, in the face of numerous military problems: a hectic tempo of operations around the world, shortfalls in maintenance, the slippage in readiness, declines in relative pay, gaps in recruitment, housing problems, troubles in retention, increased threats from states with missiles, and the failure to procure new equipment to replace the depreciating investments made 20 years ago.

Korb's devotion to facts also wanes when he selectively cites other works on the subject. If he respects the authority of Jim Schlesinger or Dan Goure, he might have pointed out that Goure's new book, with a supportive forward by Schlesinger, documents that the Clinton administration's defense budget is nearly $100 billion short each year in funding its own force plan for the next five years. This mismatch underscores my larger policy points. The administration's foreign and defense policies have been greatly weakened by its failure to match means and ends, connect strategies with operations, and back up rhetoric with actions. Korb's comments reveal that he, like Clinton, is strategically challenged. Whereas Korb maintains that the test of U.S. defense spending should be a comparison with the expenditures of other nations, a strategist would compare resources to U.S. objectives.

Unfortunately, Korb's accounting also misses the key point that leading Republican presidential candidates are making about defense policy. The strategic challenge is how the country's money should be spent transforming the military to meet new threats and to take advantage of America's existing strengths -- especially its educated people and technology. Presidential leadership is needed to press the U.S. military to maintain its superiority under new circumstances. The Clinton administration's uncomfortable relationship with the military and its failure to understand these challenges has led it to abdicate its responsibility for designing the American military of the future.

Robert B. Zoellick served as Undersecretary of State, White House Deputy Chief of Staff, and Counselor to the Secretary of the Treasury during the Reagan and Bush administrations.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now