U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Clinton’s Army

I made a remark recently on the blog that in reading William Kristol and Robert Kagan’s essay “Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy” I had forgotten that their main point seemed to be that Americans needed war to realize who they were as a nation. Okay, Teddy Roosevelt said that too–I don’t think Reagan made that argument, but that was beside the point to the two K’s.


I have also been looking at the 2000 presidential and vice-presidential debates and was stuck that basically the only point that Bush-Cheney went after Gore on was Clinton’s relationship to the military. Cheney took on took this position with relish, reminding his audience in the only debate he had with Joseph Lieberman that as a former Secretary of Defense, Cheney was especially sensitive to the way America should treats its troops.

“There is no more important responsibility for a President of the United States than his role as Commander in Chief,” Cheney counseled, “[particularly] when he decides when to send our young men and women to war.” Even though the upper levels of the military had few problems with Clinton’s people, the neocons had circulated the idea that Bill Clinton and his administration did not appreciate the military as the symbol of American patriotism but rather used it as a force to dole out government aid. “When we send them without the right kind of training, when we send them poorly equipped or with equipment that’s old and broken down, we put their lives at risk,” Cheney said. “We will suffer more casualties in the next conflict if we don’t look to those basic problems now. This administration has a bad track record in this regard, and it’s available for anybody who wants to look at the record and wants to talk to our men and women in uniform, and wants to spend time with the members of the Joint Chiefs.”[2]

Using the military as a wedge issue, it seems to me, contained an irony. At least, I would like to know if my observation seems reasonable to others. The Clinton administration had lost fewer troops during its eight years in office than any previous eight year period since the end of World War II. Thus, Cheney’s charge made little sense in light of the reality that the military’s image had actually improved in large part because Clinton’s foreign policy had avoided ground wars and, instead, killed from the skies. And while Bush-Cheney went after the Clinton-Gore foreign policy of fighting “humanitarian wars,” such efforts had created an image of American troops doing relative good across the world. Ironically, then, Clinton’s policies allowed Bush, Cheney, and the neocons to use the military as a unique expression of American virtue–as the embodiment of American civil religion.

Rather than use the troops to promote an American civil religion, Clinton had pushed the military into the culture wars with his bungled policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The perception that Clinton (and Gore) had disrespected the military had grown among the rank-and-file in part because of this controversy. Of course, both the left and the right hit Clinton hard for his “moral” failure to do right by anyone in that situation. And the fiasco in Somalia only served to taint further Clinton’s record as Commander in Chief.

But am I correct in assessing Clinton’s larger legacy? By the end of Clinton’s second term, as popular support for the military far out-paced all other institutions, it had actually been Clinton’s use or non-use of troops that made it possible for the neocons and, more particularly, the Bush-Cheney team to employ the military as a political tool. And if this is the case, did Clinton’s relative success create a hubris that Bush-Cheney elevated to a global policy, as Peter Beinart has recently argued in The Icarus Syndrome?

In short, is there an irony at the heart of the relationship between Clinton’s wars and Bush-Cheney leaps of faith?

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ray:

    I haven’t studied any of this stuff as closely as you have, but my memory is that back in 1992, Republicans went after Clinton as a Vietnam-era draft dodger. George H.W. Bush would be the last in a long line of Presidents who served in World War II. As the first president of the Vietnam generation–and someone who had opposed the war and not served in the military despite having been of military age–Clinton was a perfect culture-war target. These attacks on Clinton also exploited some of the ways in which the all-volunteer military, and especially the officer corps, no longer reflected all of American society.

    All of which is a rather long-winded way of saying that the core issues in these 2000 presidential race attacks on the Clinton legacy predated Clinton (and certainly his policies). There’s no question that those policies then played into it, from “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (and more importantly his abortive promise to allow gays and lesbians to serve) to his various interventions.

    I suspect as well that the attacks were also an instance of Karl Rove’s habit of attacking an opponent preemptively to cover for one’s own candidate’s weakness. The 2000 race was the first featuring two Vietnam-era candidates. And Al Gore’s service record was much more distinguished than George W. Bush’s (in addition, Dick Cheney, like Bill Clinton, had avoided service altogether).

  2. I agree with what Ben writes above, I have similar recollections. I also recall that many of Clinton’s prime Republican rivals glossed over there own lack of service when attack Clinton’s – Pat Buchanan, Newt Gingrich, and Phil Graham had all avoided military service as well.

    Also remember that the Bush team claimed it would take years to fix the “Clinton military.” Then when the military “accomplished” its mission early in the Bush administration the same neo-cons claimed this was their great American fighting force (even though they were sent into Iraq without armored Humvees).

    The American public seems to have bought into the belief that the right is better on military issues.

  3. It would be interesting to trace the turn in conservative Republican rhetoric from criticizing Democrats for getting us into war by not looking strong enough to our potential foes prior to military engagement (remember VP Candidate Bob Dole in 1976 describing all of America’s major twentieth-century conflicts as “Democrat wars”?) to neoconservatives in the 1990s criticizing Democrats, in effect, for not involving us in war vigorously enough.

  4. I agree with you both and thank you for your comments. As to your second comment, Ben, you suggest something I am also interested in. The relationship to war–not the fighting of it as much as rhetoric about it–follows a curious arc. I found Clinton’s era intriguing for this reason: he fights wars from the air, basically, and “dodges” ground wars and thus enables the popular image of the military to rise. The neocons, in turn, thump him for his own “dodging” of military service but probably owe him some credit for promoting policies that actually improved the image of the military so much that war became a heroic option yet again. That was the irony I hope to peddle.

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