The "Bush was strong on defense" myth

Ever since Obama was installed as president, many Republicans (including some conservatives) said that they miss President Bush. Some of those Republicans, including Richard N. Weltz of AT, even claimed that Bush was strong on defense, and contrasted Bush with Obama (who began a series of disastrous defense cuts 8 months ago).

Although Obama has failed to execute his duties as Supreme Commander of the US military, and is rightly hated by military families, the claim that Bush is strong on defense is wrong.

President Bush inherited a weak military, massacred by the disastrous defense cuts orchestrated by his father and by President Clinton. By 2000, America’s military equipment, unreplaced, was decrepit. Defense spending fell to the lowest level since FY1941 – 3.0% of GDP. That year, ervice chiefs reported that they needed additional tens of billions of dollars to rebuild the military. American military bases had become slums. In 1997, the then-USAF chief of staff, Gen. Ronald Fogleman, resigned because the Clinton Administration refused to sufficiently finance the aircraft fleet of the USAF.

So President Bush certainly inherited a decrepit military.

And on some scores, he improved it. The aggregate defense budget was slightly raised, by 14.3% over 8 years. By FY2009 the DOD had a budget of $512 bn, as opposed to a paltry $371 bn for FY2001. Secretary Rumsfeld implemented many defense reforms, including the largest BRAC round ever; a new FRP doubling the number of employable carrier groups; targeted pay rises; etc.

But by many other measures, President Bush failed.

Firstly, the budget increases were not consecutive. The Bush era was not an era of uninterrupted DOD budget growth. For example, in 2005, the Bush OMB ordered the military services to trim their budgets. As a result, the Navy was forced to make a tough choice, and to retire one aircraft carrier. (The Navy mitigated the bad results of that decision by retiring a defective carrier, the USS John F Kennedy). Read this.

Secondly, Bush and his defense secretaries (Donald Rumsfeld and Bob Gates) wrongly concluded that the only threats America is facing right now, and the only threats America will ever face, are irregular threats (insurgent groups and terrorist organizations). They ignore all other threats, including conventional threats, including states such as Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, even though each of those countries constitutes a significantly bigger threat to America than Al-Qaeda and the Taleban ever will. The 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks pale in comparison to threats like the Chinese submarine fleet, which continually stalks American aircraft carriers. Even worse, they naively believe that Russia and China are America’s allies. Consequently, they conducted a policy of appeasement towards these countries, a policy continued to this day by Bob Gates.

Because of their wrong belief (with which Obama agrees) that the only threats to the US are irregular threats, after 9/11/2001 they began remolding the US military into a mere counterterrorist unit, a tinpot gendarmerie, a mere special ops unit. This resulted in the closures and reductions of dozens of crucial weapon programs (including the Comanche program), and a severe reduction of America’s conventional arsenal. The US Navy has now only 280 ships; in 2005, 45 F-16s were retired unreplaced; etc. C-141 aircraft were retired unreplaced in 2006 because Rumsfeld refused to sufficiently invest in planes. As soon as he was confirmed as Defense Secretary, he significantly reduced aircraft orders; as a consequence, during the Bush era, the USAF bought very few planes. The consequence is that currently, the USAF has only a few modern planes and a fleet of obsolete aircraft (F-15s, F-16s, A-10s, Hercules planes, B-52s, B-1s, etc.).

Irregular weapons designed to fight rabid terrorists were financed instead of – not in parallel with – conventional weapons. The high costs of the Iraqi war and the Afghan war compounded the military’s financial problems.

President Bush also failed to implement a proper ballistic missile defense. Although the Congress continually obstructed missile defense and refused to fund it sufficiently, President Bush himself limited its planned scope to a missile defense large enough to defend America only from rogue states such as Iran and North Korea – not from a superpuissance like China.

Bush also failed abysmally to modernize America’s nuclear arsenal. He even reduced it significantly – down from ca. 10,400 nuclear warheads on 1/1/2005 to just 2200 nuclear warheads on 1/20/2009. Admittedly, the Congress voted against the RRW program and the RNEP program, but Bush failed to implement any policies that would’ve at least reserved plutonium for nuclear weapons, maintained the American nuclear arsenal at its 2005 size, or prevented the shrinkage of the DOE army of scientists. Consequently, last year SECDEF Gates noted that the American nuclear arsenal was decrepit, and earlier this year, he made the case for  (and drafted plans for) a new generation of nuclear weapons – but was overruled by Obama.

Bush and Rumsfeld – like Ronald Reagan – wrongly believed that the missile shield was a replacement, rather than a complement, for nuclear weapons. It cannot ever replace nuclear weapons. The problem with Bush and Rumsfeld was even worse than the problem with Reagan – his version of the missile shield was supposed to be large enough to intercept all Russian and Chinese ballistic missiles simoultaneously, and it was explicitly designed against Moscow as the principal adversary. On the other hand, the Bush missile shield was an inferior product, limited only to one layer barely sufficient to protect America against Iranian and Korean missiles.


President Bush certainly did implement some good policies. He increased defense spending (although to a still low level – 4% of GDP); repealed the ABM Treaty; implemented some kind of missile defense; and implemented defense reforms.

The bottom line is negative for Bush, however. Although he promised to rebuild the US military, he implemented very few policies that truly strengthened the military of the United States. Conservatives should not hail him as a proponent of a strong defense – because he wasn’t one.