On Mr. Clinton’s Watch

Dec. 1, 1992

National defense was not an issue in the 1992 election. The voters weren’t interested, or so the pollsters said, and the defense programs laid out by the candidates got no more than superficial examination.

A popular misconception, touted by the Washington Post and others prominent in analyzing the campaign, was that Gov. Bill Clinton and President George Bush had fundamentally the same positions on defense. That is not true.

Mr. Clinton’s position was a virtual clone of “Option C,” the detailed plan written by Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, in challenge to the Base Force plan of the Bush Administration. Mr. Clinton’s campaign statements followed Option C straight down the line, not only in concept but also in specific details of cost and force structure.

This points to a defense program that would be below the Base Force projection by about 200,000 troops, eight fighter wings, three army divisions, two aircraft carriers, and $60 billion over five years. That is not a trivial difference. The armed forces would shrink toward 1.4 million active duty troops, almost 40 percent below their peak strength in the 1980s. Capabilities would be closely measured to meet threats that are immediately apparent and not much more.

Campaign programs typically undergo some modification before they are launched as policy by a new administration. Mr. Clinton should take the opportunity to do just that in this instance.

A few months ago, Mr. Clinton was chastising Mr. Bush for his reluctance to order air strikes on the Serbs. The Balkans are by no means the only potential trouble spot on Earth. It will be surprising if US armed forces do not engage in conflict somewhere during Mr. Clinton’s term.

The most likely form of crisis (and, incidentally, the primary threat to which the Base Force strategy was calibrated) is a limited regional conflict, but once war begins, there is never any assurance of where it will end or what turns it will take. An unduly degraded US military posture cou!d even be a factor in stimulating crisis.

The defense program Mr. Clinton prescribed during the campaign would divest the armed forces of substantial striking power and flexibility. The only real imperative pushing that program is the promised cost savings of $60 billion over five years.

On an annual basis, that amounts to less than one percent of what the federal government spends in outlays. It won’t make a dent in the deficit, and it wouldn’t fund more than a fraction of the new domestic initiatives that some of Mr. Clinton’s colleagues have in mind.

The reason that removing another five percent from the budget has such severe consequences for defense posture is that the Base Force plan already incorporated a reduction of about 25 percent. The peripheral expenditures were cut in the early rounds. It is very difficult to make further reductions without taking combat power off the line.

Mr. Clinton will also be getting an earful from those who think Option C doesn’t cut nearly enough. Some proposals now afloat would take the force level down to 1.25 million or lower, pulling close to numerical parity with such powers as India and North Korea. As Mr. Aspin argued at length in his Option C papers, though, it isn’t just numbers that count. Combat power is measured in quality and capability. So far, Mr. Clinton is holding strong on most of the big weapons modernization programs. He supports “programs that improve our technological edge, like the F-22 fighter.”

Not everyone shares Mr. Clinton’s declared belief in the need to stay ahead on weapon systems quality, and he will soon face heavy pressure to relax his commitment. Once the force-structure cuts are conceded, the defense cutters will concentrate their attack on the modernization programs. After all, why buy weapons for forces you no longer have

In his role as commander in chief, Mr. Clinton will be uniquely vulnerable to criticism. Questions about his antiwar activities and avoidance of military service in the Vietnam period dogged him throughout the campaign. In the end, the voters decided it didn’t matter.

The questions could come roaring back in a hurry if Option C leads to gaps and shortages in the defense posture, resurrecting the scandal of “hollow forces.” If Mr. Clinton should preside over a failure of US combat arms reminiscent of Jimmy Carter’s Desert One fiasco in 1980, he will be besieged by comparisons with Reagan- Bush successes in Grenada Panama, and the Persian Gulf.

The important thing, of course, is not Mr. Clinton’s personal credibility but the effect of all this on national security. Many of us thought Option C cut it too close when Mr. Aspin proposed it last February. We still think so.

During the campaign, Mr. Clinton expressed his determination to keep US armed forces the strongest in the world. “Whatever else we expect of our presidents,” he said, “we still need a resolute leader who will wield America’s might and marshal all our resources and the resources of our allies to defend our most fundamental interests.”

That is well said, and a most suitable premise on which to base a defense program in the new administration. Now that the electioneering is over, Mr. Clinton should take a fresh look at how well a clone of Option C matches the national security objectives he has espoused.