The Slow Death of American Defense
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.
The public, in short, wants protection on the cheap. It may not necessarily be willing to police the world with a big navy and a big air force at least to the degree that it has in the past -- that is, unless a clear and demonstrable conventional threat can be identified.
The elites respond by saying that chaos anywhere threatens America's liberal vision of the globe, and there isn't just chaos here and there; indeed it is all over the Greater Middle East. The public is not convinced. The calls and emails to Congress when it was considering military action in Syria overwhelmingly carried the following message: Syria is tragic, and the regime there probably used chemical weapons. But how does this directly impact the homeland? In other words, the public may have had enough of elite nostrums regarding humanitarian causes and projecting power. Pearl Harbor, the Cold War, 9/11 were all extraordinary occurrences that the public viscerally understood, and thus it consented to years of extraordinary defense outlays. But what if nothing of that magnitude happens in the foreseeable future? What if it's just the slow, steady drip of more chaos, more atrocities, more Chinese warships in the Pacific and Indian oceans? In that case, the policy elite will be energized, but not necessarily the public.
The public is not stupid. To be sure, the public harbors a pitch-perfect common sense that the policy elites often lack, even if the public cannot articulate it well. Of course, there are significant elements of the public that are vaguely isolationist, especially within the Republican Party (and to a lesser extent on the anti-war left). But that isolationism is itself a manifestation of America's own continental geography: the awareness that the physical position of the United States naturally protects it from much of the mayhem in Eurasia. Thus, the public sets a high bar for military intervention, which is eminently commonsensical. So if the public is softening on support for high defense budgets, maybe the policy elites need to listen more closely to what the public has to say. So many of the elites wanted to do something about Syria. Well, the American people collectively shook their heads and answered, Are you kidding?
Present and future threats are both insidious and less obvious than at any time in the past. The very interconnectedness of the world and technology's defeat of distance makes the oceans less of a barrier to the American mainland than ever before. But the elites have to do a much better job of explaining this to the public. And the armed services especially have to do a much better job of explaining to a skeptical public just why they are needed as much as ever in the past. To wit, air and naval platforms, because they take many years to design and build, require the necessary funding even when no obvious threat is on the horizon.
Indeed, democratic publics, with all their common sense, are nevertheless compulsively obsessed with momentary emotions -- especially in an age of incessant polling -- and are therefore less wise in planning for future contingencies.
So the armed services and the elites must explain why armies are required for emergencies -- which periodically happen; and why navies and air forces are required for guarding the sea-lanes and thus essential for preserving the global system, upon which America depends.
Defense no longer constitutes a free ride where epic events automatically secure big budgets. The public will henceforth demand deep and lucid explanations.