Bush's "Nixon to China"

Rich Lowry

2/13/2007 1:23:00 PM - Rich Lowry

Back during the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney promised that "help was on the way" for the U.S. military. It was supposedly overstretched by the deployment of a few thousand peacekeepers to the Balkans.

That President Bush didn't truly begin to deliver the promised help until his presidency was three-quarters over — after a major terrorist attack on U.S. soil, after two invasions and occupations of foreign countries — is one of the biggest scandals of his presidency. It seems odd that a conservative Republican would keep the size of the military at post-Cold War, pre-9/11 levels for so long, but as a political matter, perhaps only a conservative Republican could have done it.

Keeping military manpower at inadequate levels is Bush's "Nixon to China." That trip is the template for an American president undertaking a counterintuitive initiative that he can pull off only because his own political party is willing to accept it from him. Conservatives in Congress and the media would have made it unsustainable for a liberal Democrat to skimp on manpower. From Bush and his now-departed Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, it elicited hardly a peep, with a few honorable exceptions.

Bush came into office as an advocate of transforming the military with breakthrough technologies. On top of this, Rumsfeld brought to the table a businessman's obsession with efficiency and doing more with less. All of this meant funding hardware and technology over manpower, which is expensive and inefficient-at least in theory — compared with the latest killing machines.

This vision wasn't irrational, it was just belied by events. The rapid vanquishing of the Taliban seemed a vindication of Rumsfeldian transformation, but five years later, 24,000 Americans are still on the ground, attempting to police the peace.

In an article in Foreign Affairs, military analyst Frederick Kagan explains the enduring necessity of boots on the ground: "It is the ability to control territory and populations that is land power's unique contribution to war in this high-tech age. Only soldiers are discriminating enough, in terms of both judgment and the capabilities of their weapons, to mix with an enemy's population, identify the combatants intermingled with that population and accomplish the critical tasks of governance and reorganization."

The Iraq War should have made this obvious, if it wasn't already. But Rumsfeld was dogged in his commitment to his vision and had a distorting effect on the debate. The more the left attacked him — often unfairly — the more the right rallied to him, and for the longest time it was, weirdly, liberals calling for more troops in Iraq and a bigger military and conservatives denying the need for the same.

As it became increasingly clear that more troops were needed in Iraq, it could be plausibly (if not correctly) argued that the troops weren't available. Thus, Bush was in an extraordinary fix for a conservative Republican — his ability to win a major war was arguably bounded by his own underfunding of the military.

Rumsfeld's departure has broken the ice. Liberals and conservatives are back to their natural positions on the troop surge to Baghdad (against and for, respectively). The military brass, who aren't very good at speaking truth to power, have adopted a new urgency of tone in public statements about shortfalls in manpower and equipment now that they know they have a receptive ear from new Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

The Bush administration wants to add roughly 90,000 to our ground forces over the next five years. It probably should be as much as double that, and happen faster. Bush's latest proposal for the Pentagon would hike military spending to only 4.2 percent of the gross domestic product, well below the 9.5 percent of the Vietnam War and beneath even the 4.7 percent with the Carter Administration.

Given the threats we face and the ground to be made up, spending should be about 5 percent for a long time to come. If a president must ever again do a Nixon-to-China on military spending, let it be a liberal Democrat gladly giving the military all that it needs.