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“Modest reforms to pay and compensation will improve readiness and modernization. It will help keep our all-volunteer force sustainable and strong. Keeping faith also means investing sufficient resources so that we can uphold our sacred obligations to defend the nation and to send our sons and daughters to war with only the best training, leadership and equipment. We can’t shrink from our obligations to one another. The stakes are too high.”

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey

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Friday
May112012

A Curious Myopia

This piece is an abridged version of Gordon’s post from AOL Defense.

In Washington, the defense budget appears to be the center of the universe. The House Armed Services and Defense Appropriations committees are adding money to the administration's request (but not very much), and the House voted yesterday on a bill that would roll back the threat of sequester (which isn’t going to happen anyway).  But this seemingly big fight is happening in a narrow ring: the minds of those who consider themselves stalwart defenders of the Defense Department and the media that covers defense, defense, and only defense.

These bills are going nowhere, because the Democratic-controlled Senate will never pass them. The ultimate defense bill will not break new ground, will not add much money, and will not save defense from the threat of a sequester next year.  In fact, all this is really a "shadow play," designed for an election year, in which everyone is playing their assigned part. 

There is a curious myopia to this expectation that the American public will rally behind candidates running on a platform of "defending defense." With the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the defense budget is no longer sacrosanct.  Our military capabilities are superb; the budgetary excess is obvious; the "threats" we face are far from existential; our military dominance is global. And the American people know it is time to return discipline to the Pentagon.

The most recent evidence of this is in a new report, released yesterday, from the Program for Public Consultation, in cooperation with the Stimson Center and the Center for Public Integrity's National Security Program.  Confronted with data that compared defense spending to other areas of discretionary spending, to past levels of the defense budget, or to spending by other countries in the world, significant majorities of the public – Republican and Democrat - said US defense spending was higher than they had expected.  Their consensus on what to do was striking. As the study stated:

"Given the opportunity to set a specific overall level for the base defense budget for 2013 a very large majority set levels below the 2012 level, including two thirds of Republicans and 9 in 10 Democrats."

On average, the respondents called for reductions that would lower defense spending 22 percent.  They did so having already been presented with arguments for and against cutting, and there’s strong evidence they took those arguments seriously: Republicans and Democrats showed they agreed with propositions that pointed in both directions, not just one.

This sentiment is consistent with other polling for the past year, revealing the public's willingness to put defense on the table and under the microscope. The polls show that defense-related issues have been replaced by deficits and the economy as the most significant concerns of the American public.

Curiously, Washington policymakers seem not to be attentive to this public sentiment. Republicans are hopeful that a fever of support for defense will sweep them into control of the Senate and into the White House. And many Democrats are reluctant to take the same wire brush to defense that ought to be taken to the tax code and domestic spending, for fear of being called weak on defense.

The public is not playing. They get it: we built up, we are strong, the war is over, and it is time for Pentagon discipline. But Washington lags behind, still performing the "shadow play."