I'm sorry, but Al Franken has struck a nerve.
"Bush Can't Lose with Clinton's Military" — That's the title Franken chose for chapter 28 of his best-seller, Lies (And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them): A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. Franken is a self-anointed Lie-Detector and Truthmeister. Sarcasm-as-proof is his weapon of choice. . .
Sarcasm sells, apparently; but it's dangerous. If Franken had chosen sarcasm as an absurdity vehicle for inducing laughter and for selling his brand of comedy, that's one thing. But Franken appears to have chosen sarcasm as a scud missile, topped with a payload of stupidity-identification paint, for revealing his chosen victims' ineptitude and deceit. (Curious aside: The only ones he's found are folks who don't share his ideology.)
The danger with sarcasm is this: When it boomerangs, its payload comes back with interest, marked "return to sender." By choosing the title he did for chapter 28 (“Bush Can't Lose with Clinton's Military”), Franken might as well have strapped on a suicide vest.
The ill-considered, even dangerous, fiscal decisions of the 1990s is a subject with which I am familiar. (Lest anyone think I formed my opinion with the benefit of hindsight, here is one of several articles I published to my old website on this very subject, prior to the 9/11 attacks.) Franken did indeed strike a nerve.
The Clinton budget in 1996 was larger than the outgoing budget of the first Bush administration—a budget developed by then DOD Secretary Dick Cheney.
He didn't give any references to check, so I retrieved the necessary data from Historical Tables 4.1 and 10.1 in each fiscal year's budget from 1997-2006, available at the GPO website. Was he talking about Cheney's '92 budget versus Clinton's '96 budget? If so, here's the result (Military Outlays, billion$); for clarity, the larger of the two numbers is in bold:
Nominal dollars (inferior way to compare, by the way):
- 1992 (Cheney)=$286.6
- 1996 (Clinton)=$253.2
Constant (yr2000) dollars (good way to compare):
- 1992 (Cheney)=$340.3
- 1996 (Clinton)=$275.5
Percent GDP (good way to compare):
- 1992 (Cheney)=4.6%
- 1996 (Clinton)=3.3%
Note that, in all cases, the 1992 outlay for military spending was larger, not smaller, than that for 1996. (The same is true for 1993 vs 1996, by the way.) Click on the graphic below to see these numbers displayed on a chart:
Conclusion: No matter which method you choose, the truth is precisely the opposite of Franken's assertion. Is Franken lying? Is he using different numbers? Or is he just making a sarcastic joke and expecting us to "get it"? Perhaps he'll explain this discrepancy on his Air America radio show; I have XM radio in my car now, and I’ll be listening.
Last possibility: Was Franken trying to say that Cheney, in 1992, had
underestimated military spending looking out four years into the next
administration—to 1996? If so, that's really stretching with stats to
make a point (...but it's human nature, and there's even a name for it: "confirmation bias"). Let's see the numbers, because GPO doesn't go that
far back, and let's be fair and balanced by comparing Cheney's forecast
accuracy to Clinton's four-year-out accuracy—looking from '97 out to
2001. I checked: Clinton underforecasted by $33.8 billion, or 13
percent. If Franken is being "fair," then why doesn't he mention Clinton's four-year-out accuracy in 1999, looking out to 2003? (It was a 41% underestimate.) And while we're at it here in 2005, who does Franken think will be in the World Series in 2009? The point: Franken's disingenuousness, regardless of which numbers he has chosen to "prove" his point, is laughable.
There's more: Clinton actually requested a smaller amount for military spending than Congress subsequently enacted. In other words, Congress had to force a larger number into the budget than Clinton wanted, as detailed in this web page. Franken apparently missed that page in his fair-and-balanced research, too.
Continuing with his sarcasm-as-proof approach, Franken points to Lawrence J. Korb, an ex-official of the Reagan administration whose opinions appear frequently on one of the only two websites Franken seems to have researched. Here's one of Korb's pieces. (And by the way, here's the other article Franken apparently used for his research.)
Lawrence J. Korb is an official with an opinion, and I respect that. But doesn't a fair-and-balanced approach (see the subtitle of Franken's book) consider both sides? Shouldn't the opinion of Clinton's own Joint Chiefs of Staff be given at least as much weight as the opinions of an assistant secretary from a previous administration? Specifically, why did Franken's fair-and-balanced research miss (or worse, suppress) the following CNN story from Clinton's final year in office?
Military chiefs call for tens of billions more in defense spending
September 27, 2000
"WASHINGTON (CNN) -- America's top military leaders told Congress on Wednesday that the U.S. military needs tens of billions of dollars in additional funds to reverse its recent decline in readiness, and to replace aging weapons and equipment.
Testifying before the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, [Clinton's] Joint Chiefs of Staff presented a unified front, saying budget cuts in the mid 1990s 'mortgaged the future' of the military." [bold red emphasis mine]
And finally, if Truthmeister Franken is really concerned with giving a fair, balanced assessment of what Clinton's 1990s budget priorities did for the military, he should read and comment on this USA Today cover story from September 6, 2001—precisely five days before the 9/11 attacks (...I remember reading this issue in the Denver airport, and then wanting to kick something, really hard):
USA's military bases turning into slums
Deteriorating housing and work facilities drain morale, waste millions
Andrea Stone. USA TODAY. McLean, Va.: Sep 6, 2001. pg. A.01
Fort Stewart, with eight of 10 facilities rated unacceptable, is the Army base most in need of repair. Established during World War II, Stewart and [Hunter] together have a $165 million maintenance backlog -- and that only includes work that has been requested. Col. Gregory Stanley, Stewart's public works director, says many problems aren't reported because soldiers know they won't be fixed.
The historical record tells me that our military deserves a ticker-tape parade for surviving Clinton's 1990s budget priorities. However, I hereby pledge to change my mind and issue a public retraction if sufficient evidence to the contrary presents itself. (Hint: Franken’s evidence is insufficient.)
Franken holds Korb’s opinion up as evidence:
…the military forces that executed [the Iraq battle plan] so boldly and bravely were for the most part recruited, trained, and equipped by the Clinton administration.
That, by Truthmeister Franken’s logic, justifies crediting the Afghanistan and Iraq victories to the Clinton administration’s management of the military. (Curious aside: I wonder when Franken will credit Iran’s 1981 decision to return our hostages to “Carter’s leadership skills”?)
In any case, by extension of the Franken/Korb logic, the next time we want to strengthen the military, we should follow Clinton’s formula:
- cut the military budget
- ignore the Joint Chiefs, and
- allow our military bases to decay into slums.
Sorry, I don’t buy it. I think we made a big mistake in the 1990s, and it wasn’t just Clinton’s fault. We took the Peace Dividend and used it to help buy ourselves a political gold mine: the Surplus, which was nearly useless economically, but a political bonanza nonetheless. (If we hadn’t disinvested in National Security in the 1990s to create that surplus, could we have prevented 911? Who knows; we can only speculate.)
No, I don’t buy calling it “Clinton’s” military. However, I’ve been wrong before, and have changed my mind when confronted with sufficient evidence. (John Maynard Keynes said it best: “When my information changes, I change my opinion. What do you do, Sir?”)
Therefore, although I respectfully disagree with ex-assistant-secretary Korb’s assertion that Clinton deserves the credit for the victorious military, I will defer to the results of a poll that would unequivocally clear things up. (Who would like to run this poll, by the way?) The poll I have in mind would ask all the members of our military one simple question:
Did the armed forces of the United States of America win decisive victories in Afghanistan and in Iraq in 2001-2003 . . .
(a) because of what Clinton did for the military in the 1990s, or . . .
(b) in spite of what Clinton did to the military in the 1990s?
As I said, I will accept whatever the results turn out to be, and publicly modify my opinion as necessary—right here in this weblog.
Moreover, the Optimist in me says that Al Franken would do the same, even if the results refuted the sarcastic assertions in his book. Why? Because Franken is a fair-and-balanced, self-anointed Truthmeister and Lie-Detector. Just read his book, or listen to his radio show. We can trust him.
The Skeptic in me, on the other hand, is laughing his butt off at the Optimist.