Last week marked the 90th birthday of President George H.W. Bush and the 89th of his wife Barbara. A splendid film honoring the former president aired on CNN – 41 on 41 (for the 41 people who spoke on camera about the 41st president) — and another on Fox News Channel. But it got me thinking – perhaps you, too, if you took in the programs and media stories marking those birthdays – of how much we have lost over the past 22 years.
For amidst all the well-deserved personal praise, one fact that to my mind should always be mentioned in connection with Mr. Bush was never spoken. Since the late 1920s and perhaps even since the end of the Taft Administration, general global peace and the United States itself have not been safer than they were by the end of the Bush 41 administration.
This achievement was, of course, the culmination of a twelve-year effort. Among that effort’s major markers were: the military build-up and modernization under President Reagan; the economic squeezing of the Soviet Union that combined with our own incredible economic growth, the build up itself and the Strategic Defense Initiative convinced the Soviet leadership that they couldn’t compete; the diplomacy of the open hand toward the Soviet leadership begun under Mr. Reagan and continued with great adroitness under Mr. Bush that offered the Soviets peace and respect not conquest or humiliation as alternatives to the status quo; and finally the firm establishment of the principle, via Mr. Bush’s response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, that the new international order would be based on rules, among them that no country would seize the territory of another.
I don’t need to tell you that one thing we’ve lost in just the last 12 months is that assumption of no room for territorial aggression and with it of a securely rules-based global order. Following the success of Russia’s seizure of the Crimean Peninsula and its continuing, if covert, invasion of the Eastern Ukraine, how can we feel secure of global peace when the new, new international order allows strong countries to gobble up weaker ones? To see how far we have descended in the past two decades, compare Mr. Obama’s “red line” to Mr. Bush’s “this will not stand.”
In part that loss has been a result of a total absence of historical knowledge, understanding and vision in the current administration. In part it stems from the gradual and now rapid abandonment of the military edge we enjoyed at the end of Mr. Bush’s term.
This last fact was brought home, at least to me, in a brilliant presentation that former senator Jim Talent gave to a retreat for Republican Capitol Hill staffers held in Philadelphia last week. I spoke on a panel that afternoon, so was present for the former senator’s luncheon address.
Mr. Talent’s talk was based on a paper that he and former senator John Kyl published last October under the joint sponsorship of the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation. If it was typical of these two men’s work, you’ve got to lament what we lost when they left the Senate.
Here is the current situation as Talent laid it out.
By the time the current president entered office, the Navy had shrunk to the smallest size since World War I. The Air Force was smaller and its planes older than at anytime since its creation. The Army, which was underfunded before the Iraq War, lacked the funds to replace the equipment lost in that struggle and Afghanistan.
This decline was a product of the choices of the Clinton Administration – saving money by not adequately funding defense procurement — as well as of the stresses of the post 9/11 conflicts during George W. Bush’s terms, when the fighting consumed all available resources.
It has been made vastly worse over the past six years. The inadequate increases in procurement spending of the prior two presidencies have turned into cuts, currently set to total $1.3 trillion by 2018. The Navy is now routinely cancelling deployments. In April the Air Force grounded one-third of its planes. And the Army has cut back training for 80 percent of its soldiers. This all comes at a time, Talent noted, when threats are rising from China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, the countries of the “Arab Spring”, and a resurgent and rising al-Qaeda.
So this is what I found myself thinking last week. When George H.W. Bush left office, America and general global peace were more secure than at any time in a century. Today they are less secure than they have been in perhaps in as much as a half-century. To get back to where we were will be a tremendous task. Do we have it in us?