In July presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney wrote an open letter to Barack Obama slamming the president for considering Pentagon cuts. “Your insistence on slashing our military to pay the tab for your irresponsible spending could see over 200,000 troops forced from service,” Romney warned. “It will shut the doors on factories and shipyards that support our warfighters, take a heavy toll on the guard and reserves, and potentially shutter Virginia military bases. It will shrink our Navy below a level that is already not adequate for protecting our national security.” Romney, by contrast, promises to spend at least 4 percent of gross domestic product on defense every year during his tenure.
Republicans who demand cuts in every program except the military open themselves up to justifiable Democratic charges of hypocrisy. Exempting major budget categories from spending discipline is a key reason government almost never gets cut. The American people are ready to take a more mature approach. A 2011 poll conducted by my firm, Rasmussen Reports, found that 67 percent favor finding spending cuts in all government programs. Every budget item, Americans emphatically believe, needs to be on the table.
A Difficult Discussion
National security is a difficult topic to discuss in mere budgetary terms, since Americans are understandably uncomfortable with putting a price tag on safety. As Ronald Reagan once put it, “Defense is not a budget issue. You spend what you need.”
Reagan’s attitude was correct in one basic sense: If we can’t defend the nation, nothing else matters. But it is also important to remember that he was speaking in a particular place and time. Recognizing that the Soviet economy could not keep up with the more vibrant U.S. economy, he was seeking to put financial pressure on the communist empire and hasten its collapse. That Reagan succeeded is one of the reasons we can consider different approaches in the 21st century.
Today we face no rival superpower with massive military capabilities and aggressive ambitions. Threats of terrorism and cyberwarfare are real but stem mostly from small cells, rather than large blocs of countries. Still, defense spending questions are hard to discuss because most Americans hold a jumble of conflicting emotions and perceptions that cloud the debate and shift the focus to almost everything except money.
As a starting point, Americans are proud of their country and hold its armed forces in high regard. Seventy-nine percent would rather live here than anywhere else, and at a time of deep cynicism about large institutions 81 percent have a favorable opinion of the U.S. military.
Yet this respect and admiration for the troops co-exists with doubts about the jobs they’ve been asked to do. Most voters now believe it was a mistake for the U.S. to have gotten involved in Iraq, and most now want to see troops brought home quickly from Afghanistan. Support for the military action in Libya peaked at 20 percent.
Americans are also in a mood to dramatically reduce our security guarantees for other nations. Less than half (49 percent) believe the U.S. should remain in its bedrock military alliance, NATO. Out of 54 countries with which Washington has signed mutual-defense treaty obligations, plus two others (Israel and Mexico) that receive our implicit backing, a majority of Americans supports defending just 12. Countries that don’t reach the 50 percent threshold include our oldest ally, France, along with Japan, Poland, and Denmark. The only four countries that 60 percent of Americans are willing to defend are Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Israel.
These findings highlight the central 21st-century gap between the citizenry and its political class. Three out of four Americans believe U.S. troops should never be deployed for military action overseas unless vital national security interests are at stake. Yet the last several presidents have adopted far less restrictive criteria for sending troops abroad. The military is often dispatched for humanitarian purposes or in the belief that the U.S. should police the world, but only 11 percent of voters believe Uncle Sam should play global cop.
Despite how some may interpret these numbers, voters are not isolationists. They still want Washington to play a leading role in world affairs; they see their country as a force for good and reject those who tend to blame America first for the planet’s woes. But citizens equally reject the default Washington position that we should respond to international crises by sending Americans first. Instead, voters are seeking a strategy that might best be described as Protect America First. If the military is successful in its core duty of protecting the nation, they believe, our other national assets will win over hearts and minds around the globe.
This mix of public attitudes suggests it is possible to develop a popular 21st-century defense strategy that will support the troops and protect the nation while reducing annual military spending by hundreds of billions of dollars.
What We Spend Now
In 2010 the federal government spent more than $875 billion on national defense and veterans’ affairs, around one-fourth of the federal budget. That figure included about $160 billion for overseas contingency operations, which consisted mostly of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus $155 billion for the direct costs of military personnel and $31 billion to care for “wounded, ill, and injured” service members and their families. Veterans’ benefits and services total about $125 billion, including $45 billion for health care. Maintaining a military with 1.4 million active-duty personnel, it turns out, is expensive.
In addition to military personnel and veterans, the national security budget includes nearly 800,000 civilian personnel. That number does not include the people working for the Department of Homeland Security and other defense-related agencies.