The bottom may be starting to fall out of the U.S. defense budget. I do not refer to numbers when I say this. I am not interested in numbers. I am only interested in public support for those numbers.
For decades since Pearl Harbor, the American public has firmly and quietly acquiesced to a robust military presence around the globe in defense of freedom. The Japanese attack on the U.S. Navy in Hawaii in 1941 shocked the public into the immediate need to defeat the Axis powers. Then the Cold War reigned for 44 years following World War II -- ignited in the public mind by the Korean War. Because Communism represented such a demonstrable ideological and geopolitical threat, even those who were ordinarily isolationist put aside their reservations and henceforth became committed to a big army, a big navy, and a big air force. True, after the Cold War there was an urge towards reduced defense budgets, manifested during the Clinton presidency. But 9/11 revealed that as but a brief interlude. The defense budget thus skyrocketed during the younger Bush administration.
But now the world is changing in a number of ways that do not obviously argue for such a robust defense. Notice, I used the word "obviously." Certainly, defense needs are pressing, but they are becoming so in a somewhat subtle and obscure way. Thus, the public is having a hard time being convinced.
For example, defense experts understand the importance of "presence" -- that is, having enough warships and fighter jets in a region to reinforce American diplomacy, reassure allies and deter possible adversaries such as the Chinese. But the public may ask: Well, if there is no obvious and direct threat to the United States, couldn't we reduce the numbers of those ships and planes a bit -- or more than a bit?
And by the way, the public may also ask: Just why do we need a big army? After all, we're not going to fight anymore of those stupid wars in the Middle East. Actually, we might need a big army for an occupation of part of North Korea, if the regime there ever unraveled. But that is the kind of hypothetical example the public would naturally be skeptical about.
Of course, the public may not like the idea of a radical regime such as Iran's getting a nuclear weapon. Thus, the public may countenance an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities at some stage if negotiations fail. But if that attack ever involved more than just firing missiles from offshore for longer than, say, a week, the public could easily turn against the White House. And a war against Iran might require a campaign lasting many weeks, with many unintended consequences.
The American public just has never been enthusiastic about great military crusades unless the threat against the homeland is concrete and immediate. Policy intellectuals sometimes talk breezily about how Americans are willing to sacrifice. No! A democratic public, in fact, hates sustained sacrifice unless it involves its own core self-interest.
Indeed, humanitarian interventionists have been confronting this very dilemma for two decades now. Remember, the public tolerated humanitarian interventions in the Balkans even as it was never enthusiastic about them. And it tolerated them only because there were no American casualties. Once casualties mounted in Iraq, and Afghanistan looked increasingly like a stalemate, public support for those wars dropped precipitously.
In fact, the world may finally be turning into a place where the public sees less and less reason for an overwhelmingly large defense budget.
For instance, if the United States can achieve a rapprochement of sorts with Iran, that will reduce further the public's appetite for military involvement anywhere in the Middle East. And if China enters a period of tumultuous economic and social change, it may begin to look like less of a threat, and that will also lessen the public's willingness to sustain massive defense outlays. Yes, there are unconventional threats like al Qaeda cells in Pakistan, Yemen and other places. But aren't the drones used to hunt such terrorists a lot cheaper than manned aircraft? And, again, how does this justify all those aircraft carriers and B-2 bombers? Such is how the public may think.