With that indelible image of Saddam's toppling statue forever banishing the doubts of the armchair generals, and with the amazing achievements of the United States armed forces coming into sharper relief, it's time for all honest observers – and especially conservatives – to confront a simple fact:
The remarkable feats in Iraq are being performed by Bill Clinton's military.
This should be obvious to anyone not blinded by ideology or partisanship. We've been told repeatedly how much more lethal and accurate our forces are in 2003 than they were in 1991 – so much so that we needed only 250,000 troops to drive to Baghdad and change the regime, as opposed to the 500,000 we sent merely to oust Saddam from Kuwait in Gulf War I. Something like 90 percent of the bombs and missiles we use are "precision guided" today, versus roughly 10 percent back in 1991. The catalogue of how today's military is smarter, faster and better than it was back during Desert Storm is a credit to U.S. ingenuity and a source of national pride.
Hmm. Let's see. Between 1992 and 2003, the person who was president for the bulk of that time was … Bill Clinton. It's true that President Bush has been throwing money at the Pentagon since Sept. 11, but defense planners will tell you that none of the impressive leaps in our military capability have taken place suddenly in the last 18 months.
No, much as it must incense Rush Limbaugh and Tom DeLay, we are liberating Iraq with Bill Clinton's military. The same Bill Clinton, of course, who, as conservative myth has it, "gutted" and "hollowed out" our fighting forces – that is, when he wasn't busy shredding the moral fabric of the country, his first priority.
What should we make of this fact?
The main truth it underscores is how divorced the defense debate is from real life. The myth that Democrats are "weak on defense" and the GOP is "strong" is one that Democratic strategists have struggled with for years. The reality is that Bill Clinton's defense budgets roughly tracked the blueprint left by then-defense secretary Dick Cheney in 1992.
But politics explains why Bill Clinton insisted the Pentagon maintain a Cold War budget even without a Cold War, to protect his party's right flank.
For the same reason, Al Gore called for bigger defense budgets during the 2000 campaign than did George W. Bush – a fact that almost no one recalls. Gore needed to "prove" his "toughness" on defense with dollars. Bush didn't have to – as a Republican, he was simply more trusted on the issue.
Indeed, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's laudable initial aim was to reform the Pentagon in Nixon-to-China fashion, as only Republicans can. Yet Rumsfeld had hit a storm of bureaucratic, congressional and interest group opposition by September 2001. In the wake of 9/11, therefore, Bush and Rumsfeld decided that reform was a luxury; better to throw money at everything, they reasoned, since the public would obviously support it, and worry about rationality later.
Beyond the U.S. military's peerless firepower and skill, however, this spending spree masks dramatic waste and disorganization that cries out for attention. As one Bush Cabinet official told me privately, "Not too far down the road, Rumsfeld will get back on the track of rationalizing defense spending so that it doesn't go into a runaway mode."
That reform agenda is for another day – for now, it's time to celebrate the extraordinary courage and accomplishments of our troops. To be sure, the risks and dangers they face in Iraq aren't over – and America's responsibility to help Iraqis build their own future has only begun.
Still, this milestone is indisputably historic=
Yes, Tommy Franks and Donald Rumsfeld and their teams deserve enormous credit, and President Bush's steely resolve may give even Jacques Chirac a secret shiver of apres-war doubt.
But all the same, I hope all honest Americans – and I know that includes you, Rush and Tom – join me in toasting the unrivalled capabilities of the military that Bill Clinton handed off to his successor.
© 2003 Matthew Miller
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