At last weekend's White House Correspondents' Dinner, one gossip column reports, liberal comedian Al Franken went up to Paul Wolfowitz, the neoconservative deputy defense secretary and said, "Clinton's military did pretty well in Iraq, huh?" Wolfowitz responded by proposing that Franken perform an anatomically impossible act.
The exchange was no doubt conducted in the spirit of good-natured invective that pervades these events (and perhaps under the influence of other spirits as well). But it does raise a serious question: How much of the swift U.S. victory in Gulf War II can be credited to decisions made by George W. Bush—and how much to the legacy left by Bill Clinton?
The short answer is that plenty of credit is due to both presidents—and plenty more to neither.
Weapons systems and war strategies often take years, even decades, to evolve. After the allies won the first war against Iraq, Operation Desert Storm in 1991, then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said he called up Caspar Weinberger "to thank him for all those $600 toilet seats he bought." (His reference was to the Pentagon-procurement scandals of the Reagan years, when Weinberger was secretary; the scandals so dominated the defense-budget debates of the era that many people were surprised that the U.S. military could fight, that its weapons worked.) Cheney's point was that he, President Bush, and their generals may have fashioned the war plan—but they executed it with inherited arsenals.
Similarly, the wonder weapons of Gulf War II—the weapons that allowed for "a combination of precision, speed, and boldness the enemy did not expect and the world had not seen before," as the second President Bush put it in his victory speech last night onboard the USS Abraham Lincoln—were developed and built during the presidency of Bill Clinton.
The most dramatic of these weapons was the Joint Defense Attack Munition, or JDAM (pronounced JAY-dam). JDAM is a kit, attached to a Global Positioning Satellite receiver, that can turn nearly any dumb bomb into a smart bomb. The pilot punches in the geographic coordinates of the target; the bomb receives signals from GPS satellites, which guide it to those coordinates; it explodes within 10 to 30 feet of the target. JDAM is a vast improvement over the earlier generation of laser-guided smart bombs. Lasers couldn't see targets well through rain, smoke, or dust, and a laser bomb cost $100,000 to $200,000 while a JDAM kit costs $18,000. So the military was able to buy a lot of them. In Gulf War II, JDAMs were vital for knocking out Iraqi tanks and artillery on the battlefield, and they made it possible to destroy urban targets without doing much damage to neighboring buildings or civilians.
Yet the first JDAMs—or, as some of them were originally called, GAMs (for GPS-Aided Munitions)—were developed, produced, and used in the Clinton years. Congress accelerated the funding for the program in 1993. The first test, in which a B-2 bomber destroyed all 16 targets from a 40,000-foot altitude at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, took place in October 1996. Boeing delivered its first production model in June 1998. A small number were dropped on Serbian targets during the war for Kosovo in 1999. The Navy started putting them on F/A-18s in the fall of 2000.
Another marvel of Gulf War II was the Predator drone, an unmanned aerial vehicle that loiters in the sky for 20 hours, takes video pictures of the ground below, and streams the imagery back to command headquarters. An advanced version of this drone also carries Hellfire air-to-ground missiles; it not only views the target but destroys it. This feat was most famously accomplished over Yemen on Nov. 4, 2002, when a drone-fired Hellfire destroyed a vehicle carrying six al-Qaida leaders. Drones were also used to dramatic effect in the Afghanistan war of October 2001 and no doubt (but to what degree we don't yet know) in Gulf War II. Certainly the combination of JDAMs and drones made it possible to find and destroy targets, including mobile targets, far more quickly and precisely than in any previous war.
The Predator, too, originated in the Clinton years—its first test flight was in 1994. Predators flew more than 50 sorties over Kosovo (though a fair number of them crashed or were shot down). The Hellfire-armed drone came later—its first test occurred in February 2001—but, a couple of years earlier, by the end of the Kosovo conflict, Predators were carrying a laser, which they used to designate targets on the ground for laser-guided bombs. The longer-range, more-enduring Global Hawk drone, too, had its first flight under Clinton, in March 1998.
Tactical Tomahawk, the GPS-guided version of the Tomahawk cruise missile—which, in Gulf War II, proved far more accurate and reliable than the earlier, terrain-contour-matching cruise missiles used in Desert Storm—was first funded in 1999.
In one sense, then, Franken was right. In two other senses, though, he was either beside the point or plain wrong.
First, presidents generally have little to do personally with big changes in military strategy or hardware. There are exceptions. John F. Kennedy ordered a buildup of non-nuclear forces in Europe and inculcated a romanticism for counterguerrilla warfare and the Green Berets. Richard Nixon built up the Safeguard anti-ballistic-missile system (but then negotiated it away by signing the ABM Treaty). The dream of ballistic-missile defenses also enticed Ronald Reagan and, now, George W. Bush, both of whom lavished such programs with unprecedented billions of dollars. Jimmy Carter poured money into the air-launched cruise missile as an alternative to the B-1 bomber, which he'd cancelled. (The Air Force outmaneuvered him, though: The Cruise Missile Carrier Aircraft, which Carter wanted built instead, turned out to be the B-1 in disguise; after Carter left office, the Air Force removed the mask and openly resumed the program.)
In other words, the military generally goes about its business, and it is often a mere coincidence which president pays for researching, developing, or deploying a particular weapon. It is doubtful that Clinton knew what a Predator was, nor is it likely that Bush could have passed an exam on the topic before the war in Afghanistan made it famous. Contrary to many Republicans' claims, Bill Clinton did not weaken the U.S. military—far from it. On the other hand, as defense analyst William Arkin put it, "If Jesse Jackson had been president, we would still have JDAM."
However, in another sense, Bush—or at least the Bush administration—does deserve credit for the victory. In the most basic consideration, Clinton probably would not have fought this war, at least not in the way it was fought. When Clinton confronted the Serbs over Kosovo, he firmly resisted using U.S. ground forces—beating back proposals even to threaten putting troops on the ground as a bargaining lever. He also directed that all U.S. pilots fly above 10,000 feet, well beyond the range of Serbian air-defense missiles. He wanted no American combat casualties—and he got none. It is impossible to say whether Clinton would have loosened his standards in a war with Iraq (assuming for a moment that he would have gone to war with Iraq). But it is a fair judgment that Clinton had little appetite for wars that would kill American soldiers. It is doubtful that he would have approved the sort of bold, swift, and unabashedly risky offensive that Bush approved for Gulf War II. It was to a large extent Clinton's arsenal. It was Bush's war.