Did President Clinton weaken the military?

As I have mentioned previously, my sister’s late husband was a career military officer. Nearly all of her friends are retired military officers and one of the constants in their conversations is that Bill Clinton seriously weakened the military. But, we had the means to overfly major cities with fighter planes after 9/11 and we had the means to mount a major campaign in Afghanistan. Apparently our current president believes that we are militarily capable of waging war against “the forces of evil” wherever he decides those forces reside. Politics aside, did Bill Clinton seriously weaken our military? If so, how?

Well, I don’t know if its anything that Clinton did (as much as I dislike him), but I’ve seen some reports saying that military appropriations tend not to be deirected where they are most needed, that COngressmen (OF ALL POLITICAL STRIPES) keep forcing the generals and admirals to built useless or less than useful items, vehicles, and vessels rather than doing what is needed.

A major military drawdown started in the early 90’s, actually in the Bush administration. Clinton continued this trend, but drew down too quickly without a concomitant realignment of forces to face current threats.

He then became militarily adventurous with said reduced force, causing a high operational tempo (optempo) in places like the Balkans, Haiti, and Somalia. This overuse of personnel and equipment took a toll on both.

Just before 9/11, we had a situation in the military where a lot of people, tired of the overwork, were bailing out for civilian life. We have aircraft carriers now that were denied proper yard maintenance and are now not mission ready. The USS John F. Kennedy failed INSURV, a major readiness inspection.

I’m not going to blame Clinton for starting this process, but he didn’t do anything to stem it. We’re paying for this shortsightedness now.

I was in the Navy from 1993-98, and saw firsthand much of what I speak.

Also, a lot of the “weakening” was prompted by the fall of the USSR and some of the reductions were likely already planned at the tail end of the Bush-I administration.

On the one hand, many who cry "weakening’ seem to think a 500-ship Navy and a 18-heavy-division Army are things you should have in and of themselves, regardless of whether you have any idea of what you’ll use them for and how.

OTOH however, there is a very real history in the US of having the military go too far back to a peacetime footing after a war, hot or cold, and then having to catch up. And during periods of extended relative peacetime there is the tendency to get enmeshed in a lot of fanciful “new paradigm” schemes that end up having no relation to the real fighting (happened before, in the late 50s. “Pentomic divisions” and BS like that)

In the case of Clinton, after the spectacularly wrong-footed “first dates” between Willie and the Brass there was no love there. In those cases, what smiling bandit mentioned as a factor becomes magnified (“Building the USS Smackdown will create jobs in your district!” “Never mind that, every other fleet in the planet put together could not match the 10 Whoopass-class ships we already have! Use the money to move the HQ of SPUDCOM to your district’s AF Base to keep it from closing!”).

Not to nitpick, but as campaigns go, Afghanistan was hardly a “major campaign.” I don’t think we ever even got two full divisions on the ground, and both of them were light.

The war probably used up a lot of intelligence analysis bandwidth. But most battlefield operating systems of the U.S. military were not fully tested.

It is true that the U.S. could not field a ground force now equal to the force fielded in Desert Storm in 1991—entire divisions we had then now no longer exist.

Anyone can look up the numbers of active duty Army and Marine Corps divisions now and compare it to 1991–the numbers speak for themselves, and are well publicized.

What’s not well publicized–because most journalists don’t understand–are items like this:

Starting about 1993 or 1994, IIRC, nearly all the infantry and armor officers in the reserve components of the U.S. Army were no longer authorized to attend the full infantry/armor officers advanced course- about 4-5 months in length (depending on the branch).

Instead, the Administration decreed that, to save money, it would shorten the course to 2 weeks in length (minus two to four days of in-and-out-processing), and you had to take the rest by correspondence.

Infantry school by correspondence??? WTF, over?

Reserve component infantry officers often cannot attend ranger school. I was turned down 4 separate times in the mid 1990s because of lack of funds. (My duty position? I was a reconnaisance platoon leader in a light infantry battalion at the time).

Later, as a company executive officer and company commander myself, I had NCOs in leadership positions one or even two stripes above their rank, who I couldn’t promote no matter how good a job they did, because there are certain schools required for promotion, and I couldn’t get funding for them. NCOs would be on waiting lists for promotion for years. We lost many good soldiers who would quit in frustration.

Don’t even ask me about spare parts. It has not been unusual at all for vehicles to be down for over a year to 18 months or more due to a lack of spare parts. My mechanics worked themselves into a frazzle.

Journalists often use all the wrong measures to assess military readiness levels. The right question to ask is not “how many troops do we have,” so much as it is “are we properly training and equipping our troops and maintaining the force.”

The answer, under the Clinton Administration (with some help from Congress, of course), was most definately “no.”

(But what else can you expect from the people that brought you the moronic “win-hold-win” policy?)

I never understood why it was that when 80-90% of our military’s professional officer corps–you know, the people we actually train and pay to assess this kind of thing–stand up and say “Houston, we have a problem”, why it is that Clintonites will bend over backwards to deny that the problem existed.

I worked for DOD for 7/8s of Mr. Clinton’s presidency. From my standpoint, he did weaken the military.

It’s beyond dispute that certain drawdowns began before he took office, and certainly it was Congress - albeit a Democratically-controlled Congress - that passed the Base Realingment and Closure Act (BRAC). But his administration was not remotely committed to stopping or reversing such a trend; indeed, he accelerated it. His administration, rather than fighting BRAC, embraced it.

Mr. Clinton’s selection of Les Aspin to the post of Secretary of Defense did not help things, either. Mr. Aspin had a history of antagonism with top military leaders from his days as the chair of the House committee on armed services, and his willingness to publicly criticize the Pentagon. While he did favor the Reagan MX missile program, and he did support the Bush Kuwait attacks, he was not an SDI supporter, he favored deep cuts in the Nvy, and an overall reduction of US forces in Europe.

Mr. Clinton appointed Sheila Widnall as the first female service secretary; she became Secretary of the Air Force. Ms. Widnall was widely viewed as less qualified than other candidates, and the prevailing belief at the Pentagon was that she was chosen more for political effect than ability. Her handling of the Kelly Flinn case, to her critics, proved that their unease was justified.

Mr. Clinton approved - over objections from the Joint Chiefs - the dispatch of the USS Harlan County to Haiti during the unrest surrounding Jean-Bertrande Aristide’s ouster by the Haitian military; the Harlan County was turned away by armed resistance and the matter was dropped - another blow, in the service chief’s eyes, for what amounted to a flimsy and inadequate use of military resources.

Perhaps Clinton’s worst mistake, and the one that created an almost irreparable breach of trust between the President and military leaders, came in Somalia, when the brass asked the White House to approve the use of amored vehicles to protect troops deployed to the region. Clinton (or his staff) refused the request; shortly thereafter, eighteen U.S. soldiers were killed by hostile fire from one of the region’s “warlords.” In later testimony, even Aspin admitted that the decision was a mistake.

The White House claimed that the decision had ultimately been up to Aspin, and The President asked Aspin to step down after this debacle.

I could go on. I was hip deep in these issues until 2000, when I left the world of defense contracting.

  • Rick

Another me too post that really doesn’t add a thing to the discussion…

I was in the Marines during most of the Clinton administration. I can confirm:

  1. Money for parts, upgrades, etc all but dried up.
  2. The upgrades that did happen often weren’t upgrades because they were so poorly tested and implemented due to lack of funds. (I’ve got a great story about the TPS-59 radar for this one).
  3. Pay (that was already attrocious) fell even further behind.
  4. Promotions were incredibly difficult to get for all the reasons already identified.

What I saw over and over again was that the best people in the service left in droves. The people that remained were the ones that just couldn’t cut it in the real world. When you can’t retain people that are over half way to retirement, there is a huge problem.

Unmentioned is the extreme shift in “Policial Correctness” that happened during that time. It became nearly impossible to shitcan people who couldn’t or didn’t make the grade. Great idea, that!

I see a consensus developing. Any defenders of the Clinton DOD out there?

In fairness to the Clinton administration, we’re talking about 1992 to 2000. During that period of time, the Soviet/Russian threat all but evaporated and the Cold War “win” was just sinking in. A credible case could be made for standing down on military readiness, one which many members of Congress bought into.

Also in fairness to Mr. Clinton, his lack of prior military service, and damaged reputation concerning his own tactics when he was potentically subject to the draft, combined to poison the well before he even took office. In other words, the military leadership was not predisposed to regard his stewardship positively.

Of course, he only exacerbated the situation. But the point is that it wasn’t merely a “Clinton hates all things military” - a lot of factors came into play.

  • Rick

Well, the defense is that the OP asks the wrong question. Absolutely the military was weaker under Clinton than it had been, say, under Reagan. But was that a problem?

The appropriate question is

“During the Clinton Administration, was the strength of the United States military appropriate to the actual and reasonably foreseeable threats to America and its interests during that period?”

I don’t know the answer to that question - I know considerably more about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the British Army during the Victorian Era than I know about the current or recent past U.S. military.


Downsizing probably was called for.

The way it was handled was attrocious though. Money was spent on the wrong things and the environment for the members of the military was tailor made to make everyone want to quit.

This can’t be a good thing.

Sua, I believe that is a fair question. My experience in the Navy leads me to conclude that the military under Clinton was not strong enough to do what the Clinton administration asked of it without serious damage to personnel, manning levels, war stocks and unit morale.

And what, precisely, did Clinton ask the military to do during his time in office? IIRC, it consisted of winding up Bush the Elder’s underarmed foray into Somalia and occasionally bombing the crap out of Iraq and the Balkans.

Oh, plus the peacekeeping activities in Bosnia and Kosovo, which have gone spectacularly well.


The first Bush administration’s “foray” into Somalia was “underarmed” - because it was not a military security foray at all. Direct U.S. involvement began in Somalia in August 1992 with food provided through military airlift. No soldiers were put on the ground until February 1993 (UNITAF), a month into the Clinton administration - 26,000 U.S. troops were added to some 13,000 U.N. troops already present.

Would you care to withdraw or amend your characterization?

  • Rick

There was, in early 1990’s, some slight cutbacks in military spending. It became increasingly difficult for the establishment to justify spending the outrageous sums on war after the main pretext for militarization was gone–the USSR.

Military spending had reached a crescendo under Reagan, who invested heavily in waste production through the Pentagon system. While a high military budget is good for powerful interests, Reaganite overspending created a massive deficit that was starting to harm the economy. This, coupled with the collapse of the USSR, necessitated a slight cut in military spending, about to the Cold War levels of the 1960’s pre-Vietnam. After these cuts were made in the early 1990’s, waste production through the Pentagon system was ramped up again in the latter part of the decade, and will reach unprecedented levels in the next few years.

All of this is going on, mind you, now that the prime pretext for military spending is gone.

Sorry, we lied to you for 50 years about the necessity of defending against the awesome Soviet threat, but we are going to keep spending 40% of the federal budget on war.

And thus the insanity continues…


Why would I bother to amend or withdraw my comments regarding Somalia when you are demonstrably wrong? Bush sough and obtained UN authorization to use military force in December 1992. The Marines came ashore in Mogadishu on December 9, 1992. The shooting started on December 12, and continued throughought the month and a half before Clinton’s January 20 inauguration, including several large firefights and plenty of smaller ones.

One may reasonably criticize Clinton for continuing Bush’s policy in Somalia. But you are completely wrong in claiming that “[n]o [U.S.] soldiers were put on the ground until February 1993.”


Given that Chumpsky just ignored everything except the Cold War in his answer, I do not feel it is incumbent upon me or anyone else to dignify him with a reply.



Right you are. I withdraw my comment.

spits out coffee