Romney defense claim misleading

SUMMARY: Mitt Romney blames the Clinton administration for shrinking the nation's military. But Romney's selective numbers are misleading. The shrinkage had bipartisan support. It began under President George H.W. Bush and continued under Clinton – even when Republicans ran Congress.

In promoting his plan for a defense build-up, Romney has blamed Clinton for cutting troops and reducing the naval fleet.

"Following the end of the Cold War, President Clinton began to dismantle our military," Romney said in an April 18 speech in Washington. "He reduced our forces by 500,000. He retired almost 80 ships. Our spending on national defense dropped from over 6% of GDP to 3.8% today."

He often repeats the claim in his stump speech and mentioned it in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs magazine. He wrote that the Clinton administration was "taking advantage of what has been called a 'peace dividend' from the end of the Cold War. (The Clinton administration) took a dividend, but we did not get the peace."

Romney is correct that military forces were reduced significantly under Clinton. The active-duty military totaled 1.8-million at the start of his presidency in 1993 and declined to 1.4-million in 2000. Total defense personnel shrunk from 2.9-million to 2.1-million.

He's also correct that the naval fleet shrunk dramatically. The Navy had 454 ships in 1993, but as vessels were retired and not replaced, the fleet was down to 341 by 2000.

But Romney is selectively choosing numbers that make it appear the military cuts were Clinton's alone. In fact, the cuts were prompted by the end of the Cold War during the Republican administration of President George H.W. Bush.

"America won the cold war," Bush declared in his State of the Union speech in January 1992. "Two years ago, I began planning cuts in military spending that reflected the changes of the new era. But now, this year, with imperial communism gone, that process can be accelerated."

Indeed, Bush and Congress agreed to a sharp drop in military personnel during his presidency. Active duty military declined from 2.2-million to 1.8-million. Total defense forces also shrunk, from 3.3-million to 2.9-million.

Romney also distorts the economic element of his claim by pulling an old number from the Reagan years to exaggerate the way defense spending has fallen. Romney says spending on national defense "dropped from over 6 percent of GDP to 3.8 percent today." But Romney failed to note the time frame he was using for those numbers. In fact, Romney had to reach back before the Bush and Clinton administrations to 1986 to find a year when defense spending was equal to 6 percent of the national economy. So he's comparing a Reagan number with a Clinton number, but his comment suggests he is just talking about the decline under Clinton.

Contrary to Romney's claim, the post-Cold War shrinkage of the U.S. military was a bipartisan effort. It began under a Republican president and a Democratic Congress and continued under a Democratic president and a Republican Congress.