The Public Rejects a Hands-Off Defense Budget

LIKE the dog that did not bark, defense spending has received curiously little attention in the battle over the budget, though it is the largest discretionary item in the budget. In his January 1995 State of the Union address, President Clinton took defense spending "off the table," where it has quietly remained ever since - except for the recent increase of $7 billion. But with the wrenching budget process requiring cuts in so many areas, do the American people want defense spending to remain unscathed by the budget-cutters' knife?

The answer is "no," according to a nationwide poll conducted by University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes Nov. 18-25. A modest majority of 54 percent said they want to see defense spending cut in the effort to balance the budget. Overall, the median respondent wanted to cut defense spending 10 percent. Furthermore, if the president and Congress decided to cut defense spending 20 percent, 56 percent said they would support this move. If this 20 percent cut were redirected to education, fighting crime, and cutting the deficit, support jumped even further to 72 percent. The recent addition of $7 billion to the defense budget was opposed by 77 percent.

Does this support for defense cuts mean that Americans want their country to withdraw from the world and abandon its commitments to protect other countries? Not at all. Seventy-two percent insisted that "because the US has global interests, it is important for the US to maintain a large military with the capacity to project its forces around the world." Only 7 percent said "the US should withdraw its commitments to protect other countries and should just protect the US." Ninety percent said that, given the threat of rogue states, the US should have a strong defense.

But it seems that Americans' concept of a strong defense is something considerably less robust than the present level of US defense preparation. The guiding principle of current US force planning, which says that the United States should be able simultaneously to win two major wars without the help of allies, was rejected by a firm majority.

Asked how much the US should spend on defense relative to its potential enemies (Russia, China, North Korea, Iraq, Iran, and Libya), 48 percent said the US should spend a bit more than the strongest potential enemy, while 29 percent said it should spend as much as all of them combined. Only 7 percent said the US should spend twice as much as all of them - the amount the United States actually does spend. This suggests that Americans greatly underestimate the relative level of US defense spending, because the cuts most respondents proposed were far less than the levels proposed here would imply.

But even with this underestimation most Americans feel that US defense spending is excessive. Sixty-three percent agreed with the argument that American defense spending "has weakened the US economy and given some allies an economic edge. It is time for the US to cut back its defense spending and make its economy more competitive." A majority even rejected the popular argument that defense spending should be preserved lest "many people ... lose their jobs when bases are closed and factories are shut down."

So, how do Americans propose that the US cut the defense budget while still protecting its global interests and maintaining its commitments to protect other countries?

First, strong majorities believe that the defense budget is being inflated by the Pentagon and Congress. Sixty-nine percent agreed that the Pentagon "often goes overboard, building expensive capabilities that are not really necessary." The popular argument in Congress that US troops are suffering from a lack of readiness was rejected by 74 percent.

More basically, though, Americans want the US to reduce its defense budget while staying engaged in the world, by putting greater emphasis on multilateral approaches to security. Offered three options for defense spending, just 10 percent wanted to spend only enough to protect the US; 17 percent wanted to spend only enough to protect the US and other countries on its own; while 71 percent wanted to spend only enough for the US to protect itself and to join in multilateral efforts to protect other countries.

The decline in support for the United Nations found inside the D.C. Beltway is not reflected in the American public. Seventy-three percent agreed that "for the US to move away from its role as world policeman and reduce the burden of its large defense budget, the US should invest in efforts to strengthen the UN's ability to deal with potential conflicts in the world."

This points to the fact that sentiments in favor of reduced defense spending are not driven just by budgetary concerns, but also by a desire for a change in America's role in the world. Seventy-one percent say that the US is playing the role of world policeman more than it should be. While most Americans want to continue to do their share in collective efforts to maintain world order, they want to move away from playing the dominant role, as well as from paying for the large defense budgets that go along with it.

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