If I asked you which of these presidents, George H.W. Bush or Jimmy Carter, spent a higher percentage of the federal budget relative to GDP on defense, what would your answer be? The “weak on defense” Carter committed an average of 25% of all federal spending to defense, W.’s father committed an average of just over 22%. In the eyes of the public, the strength of a president is often measures in the perception of dollars spent combined with public statements towards and about perceived enemies. Reality is often far removed from that perception.
Most of the important work on national security takes place behind closed doors and over secure channels. Public messaging in that arena is largely reserved for massaging public opinion in preparation for a new strategy or threat. But Americans vote largely on gut feeling. President Carter killed the B-1 program because it was an airframe loaded with developmental problems that was being designed to fill a role occupied by other systems. President Reagan used Carter’s ending of the program as a hammer in the election of 1980, then promptly restarted it when he took office. When the first Gulf War broke out in 1991, planners were hard at work finding targets to show off their systems. The B1 was conspicuous in its absence. The loss of that airframe didn’t slow down the political sideshow though. Contractors during Desert Storm, gave a good example of their standard operating procedure: they consistently exaggerated the effectiveness of their products, and were supported in this subterfuge by the D.O.D.