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 is voting today on a bill that would roll back the threat of automatic cuts (a sequester) that could lower the defense budget as much as $55 billion next January.
It looks from here as it a big fight is going on, but it 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 — a phony drama, where puppets are manipulated behind a back-lit screen in a way that makes the audience think real actions are taking place. A sequester is not going to happen, but the Republicans think their stalwart defense of defense will help win the election in November; the Democrats want to have this political fight for the next six months because it will pit the defenders of the rich and their low taxes (the Republicans) against programs that help the middle class and the poor (the Democrats), with the defense budget as the hostage. Everyone is playing their assigned part.
This drama was set up by the Budget Control Act (BCA), passed last August, which mandated automatic cuts in defense (and non-defense) if a special committee could not agree on a budget deal last fall. The committee, predictably, failed. We knew it would because implementation of the automatic cuts was set for January 2013, after the November 2012 election. The script for the shadow play was written.
The base defense budget (outside war costs, which are extra) is at the highest levels it has been in constant dollars since the end of World War II. It is 40% of the entire military spending of every country in the world. Our military superiority is totally unthreatened; no other military force is truly global.
The crocodile tears the Republican House is shedding over the defense budget takes the form of a budget resolution, a “reconciliation” act, and a “Sequester Replacement Act,” being voted today, that would gut domestic spending while they “protect defense.” Mea culpa for the BCA, they say. We will be the cavalry that saves defense from a fate worse than death. These are not serious legislative efforts; they are part of the drama, setting up what the Republicans hope will be a winning argument in November.
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, no longer the number one priority of the American people. The public has wised up: we doubled the defense budget over the past decade and, as the departed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, put it in January 2011: “my own experience here is that in doubling, we’ve lost our ability to prioritize, to make hard decisions, to do tough analysis, to make trades.”
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. They are not watching the “shadow play.”
The most recent evidence of this is in a new report, released today, from the Program for Public Consultation, in cooperation with the Stimson Center and the Center for Public Integrity’s National Security Program. The study, based on a complex poll done with a scientifically selected sample poll of 665 Americans), showed that Americans think US defense spending is higher than they thought and that they are prepared to lower it.
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. Presented with arguments for and against cutting the defense budget, Republicans and Democrats showed they agreed with propositions that pointed in both directions, but clearly in both directions, not just one.
But then, asked whether they would actually cut the defense budget, whether they bought either set of policy justifications, the consensus 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.
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.”
Gordon Adams, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, is a professor at American University and a defense expert at the Stimson Center. He oversaw the last defense drawdown as associate director at the Clinton White House’s Office of Management and Budget