Center for International Policy
Something in the Air: "Isolationism," Defense
and the US Public Mood

Carl Conetta
CIP Project on Defense Alternatives
October 2014


The report analyzes current and historical U.S. public opinion polls on global engagement, military intervention, and defense spending, finding significant fluctuation in public sentiments. The report assesses these in light of changes in policy, strategic conditions, and the economy.

A comprehensive review of opinion surveys shows a trend of growing public discontent with aspects of post-Cold War U.S. global policy. This has been misconstrued by some as evidence of "neo-isolationism." In fact, a solid majority of Americans continue to support an active U.S. role in the world. Public dissent focuses more narrowly on U.S. military activism and the idea that the United States should bear unique responsibility for the world's security. Official policy along these lines has weakened public support for global engagement generally, but the public does not prefer isolation.

On balance, Americans favor cooperative, diplomatic approaches to resolving conflict and they tend toward a "last resort" principle on going to war. Still, they will support forceful action against aggression when vital U.S. interests seem at risk. And, in prospect, they express a willingness to stem genocide.

The public's initial impetus to war may be strongly emotive, tied to a catalytic event. However, polls show that more pragmatic considerations soon come into play. Ongoing support requires that the costs of war match the perceived benefits. Domestic economic conditions are key in determining the perceived "opportunity cost" of war.

To gain and sustain support, military goals must be perceived as realistic, pragmatic, and cost-effective. Generally speaking, Americans do not favor involvement in most third-party interstate wars or in any civil wars. They also do not now support regime change efforts, armed nation-building, or persisting constabulary roles. On balance, the U.S. public lacks a "crusading spirit" with regard to the use of force abroad – whether the aim is posed in moral, humanitarian, political, or geopolitical terms.

The current spike in support for bombing ISIS is consistent with the limits and precepts outlined above. Support will waver if the mission grows or fails to show real progress.

Opinion surveys show a chronic gap between elite and public views on military intervention and America's global role. A preference for military activism and dominant global leadership finds greater representation among foreign policy elites than among the general public. Among the public, there is greater representation of selective engagement, cooperative security, and isolationist views (although the latter view is not predominant).

Elite-public differences may reflect differences in how costs and benefits are experienced. Singular events such as the 9/11 attacks can temporarily close the gap, but it re-emerges if and when the public begins to feel that the costs of military activism are exceeding its benefits.

One consequence of public displeasure with recent wars is reduced support for defense spending. Counter-balancing this is an enduring desire for superior defense capabilities – a preference that does not imply support for military activism. The public will support relatively high levels of defense spending as a deterrent and an insurance policy, while not intending to write a blank check for military activism.

Public perceptions of security threats and of the health of America's military are pivotal in determining sentiments about defense spending. They also are quite malleable. Partisan political dynamics are another factor significantly affecting opinion on defense spending. Military spending is a perennial political football, and public preferences about spending are partly determined by partisan allegiances.

Today, opinion continues to favor reduced spending, although this may soon change. Looking back over a 40-year period, there have been several "pivot points" during which attitudes about spending rapidly changed from "spend less" to "spend more." Conditions characteristic of those pivot points are increasingly evident today.

With the advent of intensely polarized electoral campaigns, now and historically, the security policy debate shifts in a hawkish direction. Political actors desiring increased Pentagon spending and/or a more confrontational posture abroad have at their disposal several effective "issue framing" devices for biasing public debate and opinion.

One effective framing device is to pose the defense budget discussion in terms of the putative danger of a "hollow military." Another is to define current security challenges and choices using Second World War metaphors – such as references to Hitler, Munich, appeasement, and isolationism. Both devices are now fully deployed, making it likely that leading presidential nominees will advocate significant boosts in Pentagon spending in 2016.

Although public opinion may swing into support for higher spending levels as an acceptable assertion of national strength, historical precedent suggests that the public will not soon support a return to big protracted military operations abroad. Precedent also suggests that any increased support for spending will not last long if national leaders continue to over-reach internationally, as already seems likely.

1. Introduction: ISIS and Isolationism

Soon after the official departure of US combat troops from Iraq, some American political leaders and commentators began perceiving and decrying a “neo-isolationist” trend in US public opinion.[1] The evidence was polling data showing strong public reluctance to involve the nation in new conflicts abroad – specifically in Libya, Syria, Ukraine, and Iraq.[2] A related concern has been public opinion on defense spending, which is leaning toward spending less despite a 12% real reduction in the Pentagon’s base budget between 2010 and 2014. This, some insist, is hobbling America’s capacity to deal with global challenges.[3]

During the summer of 2014, however, public sentiment began to shift with regard to one issue at least: the depredations of the self-styled “Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham” (ISIS).[4] Today, large majorities of Americans have come to favor US air strikes on ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. In this light, defense leaders and lawmakers are arguing the case that effective action against ISIS may require boosting the Pentagon’s budget above what current law allows.[5]

Does this mean that America’s “neo-isolationist moment” has ended before even getting much of a start? Will public support for defense budget restraint soon dissipate as well?

A serious examination of public opinion data over the past decade (and more) shows that isolationism was never at the heart of Americans’ reluctance to involve the United States in new conflicts abroad. The claims of isolationism had misconstrued a real and significant trend in public sentiment about US global policy since the Cold War’s end: growing dissatisfaction with the official emphasis on unbounded military activism. Now, hawkish assessments of America’s reaction to ISIS threaten to misread the public mood again. In fact, the current desire to strike hard at ISIS does not indicate the public’s reconciliation with routine or unbounded interventionism.

What does recent polling on ISIS show? Opinion surveys by the Washington Post and ABC (WP/ABC) show public support for air strikes on ISIS rising from 45% in June to 54% in August to 71% in early September.[6] The August surge in opinion was propelled by attention to the humanitarian plight of Iraqi minorities fleeing ISIS, while the steep September spike was in response to the brutal execution of American journalist James Foley. The September WP/ABC poll also shows 59% of respondents thinking that ISIS constitutes a “very serious” threat to US vital interests. An early September poll by CNN essentially concurs, showing 76% support for air strikes and 45% of respondents believing that ISIS constitutes a very serious threat to the United States.[7]

The polling on ISIS reveals several fundamental aspects of public thinking about overseas US military action – none of them surprising or at odds with recent public dissents:

First, Americans will support limited pragmatic action to stem what they perceive as an impending mass slaughter of innocents abroad.

Second, Americans are ready and eager to respond with force to vicious assaults on Americans by foreign extremists.

Third, attacks on Americans that seem to be “identity-based” will be viewed as a threat to Americans everywhere – and therefore of vital concern.

The current limits to Americans’ will to war are also clear. Majorities continue to oppose the re-commitment of ground troops to Iraq or Syria. Military aid to local actors remains controversial. And support for extending air strikes on ISIS to Syria is less strong than support for operations in Iraq. The public’s concern is principally riveted on ISIS militants, wherever they roam – not on the fate of Iraq or Syria. And this support is tied to relatively low-cost standoff combat operations – air attack, not ground combat. Conversely, support remains weak for new or renewed involvement in interstate wars, civil wars, regime change efforts, nation-building, or persisting constabulary roles.

For a variety of reasons (explored below), the shift in opinion on ISIS will not alter the secular trend of the past decade, which generally favors less, not greater military involvement abroad. Over-reaching in Syria or Iraq, as seems likely, will only deepen this trend.

One change that does seem likely is increased public support for giving the Pentagon additional relief from budget sequestration. Although this is not essential to operations against ISIS, those operations add prima facie credibility to the Pentagon’s ongoing campaign against budget restraint. American majorities express an invariant desire for robust defenses. A budget boost might find support as a palliative to mitigate fears stirred up by alarmist rhetoric on Russia, China, ISIS, and the purported “hollowing” of America’s armed forces.

The trend in U.S. public opinion on military activism and defense spending neither begins nor ends with current concerns about ISIS. It has been rising in the background of recurrent crises beginning with the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993. Although it can be temporarily paused and regressed by partisan political dynamics or alarmism around the crisis du jour, it eventually reasserts itself. Derided and dismissed as “isolationism,” it actually reflects a desire for security policy reform that neither Democratic nor Republican leadership seem ready to deliver. One factor for change that cannot be spooked, however, is the evolving economic and fiscal condition of America, which argues for a more sustainable and cost-effective approach to securing the nation.

2. Targeting Neo-isolationism

The notion that the American public was sliding into isolationism found expression over the past two years among both liberal and conservative commentators. Two representative voices are William Galston (Brookings Institution) and Walter Russell Mead (American Interest magazine).[8] Both have argued the presence and danger of “neo-isolationism” while disagreeing about its source and character. For Galston, there was a structural source, economic in nature. For Mead, the problem corresponded to cycles in policy.

Writing in March 2014, Galston argued that “As long as the economy remains troubled,” a preference for nation-building at home “will prevail against external challenges that seem less than existential.”[9] He and others point to a variety of factors that reinforce a focus on the home front:[10]

       The anemic recovery from the 2007-2009 Great Recession,
       The real decline in median household income (which in early 2014 was lower than in 1998),
       Growing income inequality,
       Concern about public debt,
       The decline in American competitiveness, and
       The rise of new, competitive economic powerhouses abroad.

And, indeed, numerous public opinion surveys show that, since 2007, fiscal and economic concerns have displaced worries about foreign borne threats at the top of citizen national priority lists.[11]

Mead detected a different pattern: a cycle in U.S. global policy that involves alternating periods of engagement and disengagement. The cycle begins with the perception of a serious external danger which draws America deeply into world affairs and activism. What follows, however, is overconfidence or over-extension in the execution of American policy. This leads to costly mistakes and a period of contraction. But, he concludes, “when Americans got foreign policy wrong or ignored the outside world, the consequences were so severe that we were continually forced back into the game.”[12] Defense Secretary Hagel adopted a similar argument in a May 2014 speech at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs warning that “turning inward...does not insulate us from the world's troubles. It only forces us to be more engaged later – at a higher cost in blood and treasure, and often on the terms of others."[13]

Mead expected that recent Russian and Chinese assertiveness as well as overlapping crises in the Mideast and Southwest Asia would soon extinguish the latest bout of grassroots "neo-isolationism." And indeed, opinion surveys have indicated increased U.S. public concern about Russia, China, and ISIS.[14] This has been driven partly by leaders’ muscular rhetoric and stern warnings about what the failure to intervene might incur.[15] Still, only recently and in the case of ISIS has this concern been matched by increased public willingness to ramp-up military intervention.

In the sections that follow we argue and show that:

        Mead and Galston are mistaken in ascribing the public’s reluctance concerning military intervention to a generalized desire to disengage internationally. If there is a causal link, it runs in the other direction; Feckless and unbounded military intervention undermines internationalism.

        Galston is right to see that attention to economic realities plays a role in public sentiments about engagement, but it is not a matter of economic distress causing a withdrawal reflex. Instead, the public’s experience of economic realities figure in how it weighs the costs and benefits of policy outcomes – a not unreasonable reaction. And it can pertain in times of both scarcity and plenty.

        Mead is correct in perceiving a cyclical pattern in public thinking about engagement. However, this is not a reaction to U.S. global policy cycling between “getting it right” and “getting it wrong.” Instead, it reflects a process of the public becoming increasingly sensitive to the poor cost-to-benefit ratio of security policies that are unrealistic from inception.

3. Americans Rethink Global Engagement

Weighing war and economic distress

Can the public be walked toward a more assertive military stance abroad? Can it be swayed to accept a boost in defense spending as well? Much depends on the public’s reading of security threats, of course, and its sense of the current health of America’s armed forces.

Singularities such as the 9/11 attack, Pearl Harbor, and the 1950 rout of the U.S. Eighth Army in Korea can suddenly and dramatically alter public priorities. However, Galston implies that a more nuanced and deliberate process pertains when considering non-existential challenges and non-critical vulnerabilities. He suggests that a sense of resource scarcity and competing ends plays a part. To this we can add greater public appreciation of the great cost and limited utility of military power when applied to certain ends – an appreciation distilled gradually from experience over time. What may make the current state of public opinion unique is the intersecting experiences of the Great Recession and 15 years of desultory war.

America’s current economic and fiscal woes are unusually acute and they reflect global economic trends that suggest no early or easy respite.[16] The shift in global economic power that is now underway will produce a circumstance – a new global economic balance – unlike any America has experienced since the 19th century.[17] The effects of this, which Americans are already experiencing, cannot be simply talked away. Indeed, these circumstances have inspired speculation of a “New Normal” domestic economic condition characterized by slower growth, higher unemployment rates, and reduced government services.[18] In this light, the public’s current “war-weariness” may prove especially tenacious. A “New Normal” in domestic economic affairs may compel a New Normal in international affairs as well.

Despite defense establishment complaints, the baseline Pentagon budget for 2015 still sits far above – 29% above – its level in 2000 in real terms. By comparison, U.S. Median Household Income (MHI) sits 6.5% below its 2000 level, also corrected for inflation. Of course, the public routinely affords defense spending a special status because national security is a paramount value.[19] This does not entirely exempt it from cost-benefit calculations, however – even if only impressionistic ones. The pivotal question is whether the public feels that the increased investment in military power and operations have yielded reliable gains in security.

Clearly, the aggregate increase in Pentagon spending over the past 14 years has been immense:

         Since 2001, total spending on Overseas Contingency Operations (that is, war spending) has exceeded $1.75 trillion (2015 USD).

        Baseline Pentagon spending (which does not include direct war costs) has exceeded the 2000 level by an aggregated total of $1.6 trillion over the past 14 years, adjusted for inflation.

Taken together these two sums significantly exceed the savings targets set in the 2011 Budget Control Act, which has gripped public consciousness for the past four years.[20] To this fiscal burden we must add the human cost – for Americans: 6,800 service people killed and more than 50,000 injured by official count. (By some measures the number injured is more than ten times higher).[21]

In this light, how does the public assess America’s major military involvements of the past 13 years?

         Today, the public views the use of force in Iraq to have been a wrong decision by a 50% to 38% margin.[22]
         The use of force in Afghanistan fares better with 51% to 41% of the public considering it the right decision.
         However, Americans also believe by a 52% to 38% margin that the U.S. effort in Afghanistan has been mostly a failure.

In a more sweeping assessment, none of the nine significant U.S. military interventions between 1992 and 2012 have led to a condition of self-sustaining peace, stability, and growth in the host nations.[23] Six of the conflicts remain largely unresolved or have morphed into something worse. Rather than advancing America's global status, they have bred enmity toward the United States, especially in the Mideast and North Africa.[24]

Despite the “war on terrorism,” now in its thirteenth year, deaths due to terrorism are today much more numerous worldwide than in the first years of this century. And Americans’ fear of terrorist attack remains high.[25] Rather than fueling support for military intervention abroad, however, this fear has served as another inhibiting factor. With regard to the Syrian conflict, for instance, 60% of Americans in September 2013 believed that direct U.S. involvement would increase the threat of terrorism.[26] Only 3% see intervention as likely to decrease the terrorist threat.

In sum, the cost of recent wars has been extraordinary and the results much less than anticipated. Charges of “neo-isolationism” notwithstanding, it is not myopic to assess war outcomes from a cost-benefit perspective. Nor is it reactionary to take scarcity into account when thinking about the use of national resources. Reviewing public sentiments on intervention in this broader context suggests that Americans have not grown “war weary” as much as war wise.

Gauging engagement

The charge of “isolationism” is an evocative one, calling to mind (as intended) the failure to stop the world’s march toward war and holocaust during the 1920s and 1930s. But, if there is today new and greater dissent from some aspects of U.S. global policy, does it mean that the public is actually seeking U.S. global disengagement and isolation? Examining the broader context of public opinion helps clarify its import, as shown above. War and the economy are part of the picture. Also essential is a broader assessment of the object of the public’s concern: U.S. global engagement, its character and extent.

By various indices the United States today ranks as moderately-to-highly integrated globally.[27] Although not as integrated as some nations, the sheer size of America’s economy sets it apart in absolute terms. Thus, for instance, the United States is:

        The world’s largest importer of goods and services and the third largest exporter. In 1991 U.S. exports and imports were each equivalent to about 10% of U.S. GDP. Today these have grown to 14% and 18% of GDP respectively.[28]

        The largest provider of direct foreign investment and its largest recipient.[29]

Integration is not the same as “engagement,” however. The former is an outcome of policy or a condition, while the latter describes a policy orientation, a choice. And as a matter of policy choice, America is intensively engaged in world affairs.[30]

In addition to being a permanent member of the UN security council and a leading member of the Group of Seven, the United States holds commanding positions within both the IMF and World Bank. It participates officially in more than five dozen other international organizations and forums.[31] It is signatory to thousands of international treaties and agreements.[32] And it is the world’s top provider of foreign aid, surpassing the next three top providers combined (although nearly one-third of American aid is security assistance).[33]

In terms of global military engagement, America is in a class by itself with no near-competitor:

        The United States invests heavily in major military alliances or relationships with 47 nations as well as security assistance partnerships and programs involving more than 100 others.[34]

        At least 200,000 U.S. military personnel are routinely stationed or deployed abroad. In recent years, the total number of U.S. military personnel employed abroad has varied as high as 400,000. All other nations combined have less than 150,000 deployed or stationed outside their borders – 60% of these in UN peacekeeping operations.[35]

        America maintains a military presence in 175 foreign nations. In 15 of these, the U.S. military presence exceeds 1000 uniformed personnel.[36]

        Forty foreign countries and territories host U.S. military facilities comprising more than 50,000 structures (365 million sq. ft.) and covering more than 600,000 acres. Most of this infrastructure is concentrated in 14 countries and territories.[37]

        America’s armed forces are today significantly involved in more than 15 conflicts worldwide (as well as several peace operations).[38]

There is strong evidence (reviewed below) that the U.S. public is indeed worried about the character and extent of U.S. global engagement. And Americans are preferring “less.” However, America’s current global posture is such that there is ample room for adjustment well short of disengagement.

Fears of incipient isolationism may be due in part to the types of questions put before the American public by polling organizations and by the failure of observers to carefully and comprehensively assess survey results. It may also be a more calculated effort to rebuild a consensus around energetic military activism by that sector of policy leaders who, unlike the public at large, believe its benefits are worth its costs.

What the polls say

Testing for "isolationist” sentiment

Periodic polls by the Pew Center and Chicago Council for Global Affairs give a longer, more detailed view of trends in opinion on global engagement.[39] At first glance, several seem to add credibility to concerns about “neo-isolationism.” For instance, Pew has periodically asked respondents if the United States "should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own." Forty-three percent said yes in 1975, 41% in 1995, and 52% in 2013.[40] (Fig. 1.)

Pew Center 1

Gauged a different way, U.S. public “isolationist” sentiment seems even stronger. The Pew Center surveys also tested agreement with the statement: “We should not think so much in international terms but concentrate more on our own national problems and building up our own strengths.”[41] (Fig. 2.)

         73% of respondents agreed in 1975
         78% in 1995
         80% in December 2013

To put these findings in perspective, the proportion of respondents agreeing with this second proposition has not fallen below 54% since 1964. In fact, the question differs importantly from the first and does not indicate a desire to withdraw from the world.

Pew Center 2

The first query by Pew poses an absolute choice: engagement, yes or no? The second is more relativistic, probing feelings about the balance between domestic and foreign policy. What it reveals is exceptionally strong current support for rebalancing priorities. Frustration of this desire may be pivotal in provoking more unequivocal attitudes on engagement, like those expressed in response to the first question. It is important to recognize that rebalancing in favor of domestic priorities does not imply withdrawal from global affairs.

An April 2014 Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey accords with the Pew results, although it too has been mistakenly interpreted as indicating an isolationist surge.[42] A serious look shows that the WSJ/NBC poll did not counterpose global “isolation” and “engagement” at all. It simply asked respondents if they preferred more, less, or no change in the current level of U.S. global activism. It found that 47% preferred less, 19% more, and 30% the current level. Again, the plurality preference for rebalancing toward “less” is not tantamount to seeking isolation, especially given the extent of current activism.

Another mitigating fact is that the American public generally expresses greater concern with events at home than those abroad when the choice is posed as a blunt choice or in sweeping terms. However, when public priorities are disaggregated, concerns about security policy often rise to the top of the list, as was the case for the first five years following the 11 Sept 2001 attacks.[43]

The public's expressed priorities changed rather dramatically across many polls during the course of 2007 as concerns about jobs, the economy, the national debt, and health care rose to the top.[44] Public concern about domestic issues – principally the economy – has dominated priorities lists ever since. This clearly indicates the impact of the nation’s economic and fiscal woes on how the general public is weighing foreign policy concerns. But again, greater attention to economic health and power need not signal isolationism.

Reform or retreat?

A 2014 survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs asks a question that is subtly different from those posed by Pew: “Is it better for the future of the country if we take an active part in world affairs or if we stay out.”[45] (Fig. 3.)

         In Sept 2014, 58% of Americans thought it best to take an active global role, while 41% stood opposed.
         The recent high point came in 2002 when 71% favored an active part and only 25% stood opposed.
         The balance of opinion today is roughly comparable to that in 1982.

The poll shows a distinct decline in pro-engagement sentiment since the start of the Iraq war. Indeed, the pro/con balance is among the least “activist” of the past 65 years. However, the size of the majority still favoring an active role in world affairs suggests a resilient foundation for global engagement.

Chicago Council Poll

The difference between the Pew and Chicago Council polls provides insight into how the public approaches this issue. Notably, the Council's question does not juxtapose domestic and foreign goals. Nor does it imply being a global "busybody." It centers on the perceived value of being involved in the common affairs of nations. When engagement is viewed this way, significant majorities of Americans favor it.

The Council surveys found that the decline in activist sentiment since 2002 correlates with negative views of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Looking further back, similar shifts in opinion are evident during the periods 1964-1976 and 1992-1995. These periods encompassed years of troubled military operations abroad or followed the conclusion of major confrontations. The Council data also shows an especially sharp decline between 2006 and 2008, leading the authors to conclude that “the American people want to play an active part in world affairs but their internationalism is increasingly constrained by economic troubles at home.”[46]

This closer look at a range of survey questions over time suggests that the experience of war and profound economic change have combined to elicit public expressions of restraint. But this does not imply a general retreat from world affairs.[47] On balance, the American public remains quite internationalist in its outlook.

Terms like "global engagement" and "isolationism" are simply too broad to usefully represent U.S. public opinion. Different forms and degrees of engagement need to be distinguished, for instance: cooperative approaches versus unilateral ones, and military versus nonmilitary engagement.

Balanced engagement, not "isolationism"

In the series of polls conducted by both the Pew Center and Chicago Council, significant majorities of Americans have consistently supported U.S. participation in international institutions as well as cooperative multinational approaches to addressing world problems – as long as leadership, responsibility, and burdens are evenly shared.[48] Americans also strongly support energetic participation in the world economy – as long as care is taken to protect American jobs.[49]

What attracts little public support is the role of the United States as global cop, hegemon, sole leader, or "most active" world leader. The 2012 Chicago Council survey found 78% of respondents agreeing that the United States was “playing the role of world policeman more than it should.”[50] This may explain much of the “anti-engagement” sentiment apparent in some surveys.

A series of questions on current and potential conflicts by the Pew Center shows that “Americans are broadly supportive of nonmilitary forms of international engagement and problem solving, ranging from diplomacy, alliances, and international treaties to economic aid and decision making through the UN.”[51] These routinely out-poll military options, although a “rally effect” typically occurs once wars begin.[52]

When asked about overseas military operations in categorical terms, majorities do support intervention to stop genocide, prevent humanitarian catastrophes, and secure the flow of oil – a mix of high-purpose and self-interest goals.[53] By contrast, the public routinely disfavors involvement in foreign civil conflicts and interstate wars, even those that figure centrally in the web of U.S. overseas commitments.[54] For instance, the 2012 Chicago Council survey found 56% of Americans opposed to using U.S. troops in the case of a new Korean war and 69% opposed in the case of China invading Taiwan.[55]

Public support for involving the United States in overseas conflicts declines when questions grow more specific about time and place or when the prospect of casualties is mentioned.[56] In other words, the war option is less popular when made to seem more real or when background information allows a fuller calculation of cost, benefit, and responsibility. Conversely, support is generally stronger when intervention is presented as a collective or UN-mandated effort. The virtue of collective action is that it lends a sense of legitimacy to the war option and implies that responsibility and burdens will be shared.

4. Leaders versus Led on Global Engagement

The elite-public divide

The alarmism about Americans' desire to reform U.S. global practice points to a chronic gap between policy leaders and the general public. This gap pertains especially to the character of U.S. global leadership and its means of expression.

In five polls conducted between 1993 and 2009, the Pew Research Center compared the views of the general public with those of members of the Council on Foreign Relations.[57] Across these years, a strong plurality of the general public (almost 50% on average) preferred that the United States play a global leadership role equal to that of other nations. By contrast, only 25% of CFR members chose equality. Instead, 70% of CFR members (on average) preferred that the United States play a dominant or “most assertive” role. Only a third of the public chose these strong leadership options.

Similarly, the Pew Center’s 2013 survey found that 51% of the public thought that the United States “does too much in terms of helping solve world problems,” while only 17% thought it did too little. In stark contrast, only 21% of CFR members thought the nation was doing “too much” while 41% thought too little.[58] Accurately interpreting such broad-brush responses requires a more refined look at preferences, however. What is it that the public feels America is doing “too much” of overseas?

Certainly the general public is less inclined than the foreign policy elite to go to war.[59] This is evident in Pew polling mentioned above as well as polling by the Chicago Council. In one Chicago Council poll, the views of foreign policy elites on 11 conflict scenarios were directly compared with those of the general public.[60] The result showed the public less willing to justify the use of American force in eight of the scenarios. Only in one case did public and elite attitudes closely correspond: a bare majority (51%) of both signaled a willingness to help Pakistan in the case of an Islamic revolution. This outcome probably turned on the prospect of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into extremist hands.

The two cases in which public support for using force exceeded the preferences of the expert sample were (i) protection of the Mideast oil flow and (ii) interdiction of drug lords in Colombia. In one other case, public support for forceful intervention trailed not far behind elite support: stopping genocide. These differences partly reflect the public’s relatively greater emphasis on pragmatic ends and humanitarian ones. And they partly reflect the general public’s reluctance to use force except in dire circumstances.

Generally speaking, the U.S. public favors a “last resort” approach to the use of force. In this, the public diverges from an axiom of post-Cold War U.S. security policy that was first enunciated by President George H.W. Bush. In his 1993 West Point valedictory address, Bush set aside the "last resort" principle, suggesting instead that force might be the preferred option when other approaches were not thought to be as likely to work or work as well.[61] This formulation makes light of the vicissitudes and chaotic outcomes of war, which urge that other options be attempted and exhausted, not simply contemplated. In so doing, it lowered the threshold on the use of force and helped rationalize “wars of choice.” It has governed American security policy ever since.[62]

Explaining the gap

American public opinion regarding global engagement reflects citizen values, perceived interests, available information, and beliefs about how the world works.[63] The gap between leaders and led reflects differences with regard to some or all these variables.

Differential access to information can account for some of the gap between public and elite preferences. For instance, the public generally responds far less favorably to the provision of foreign aid than does the expert cohort.[64] However, the public also tends to grossly over-estimate the amount of aid that the United States provides. When given a choice to set “appropriate” aid levels, the public either maintains or increases foreign aid budgeting – at least with regard to its non-military forms.[65]

Elite-public differences may also reflect the fact that elites occupy a social and demographic strata not representative of the general public, which can contribute to differences in the perception and weighting of policy costs and benefits. This seems evident in the different priority given by foreign policy leaders and the general public to the goal of “protecting American jobs.” In the 2013 Pew Center poll 81% of the public, but only 29% of the leadership cohort, ranked this as a top foreign policy goal. Chicago Council polls also consistently find very substantial differences in how elites and the public rank this goal.

Differences in perspective and interest pertain not only on the individual level. Many members of the foreign policy elite represent institutional interests and perspectives. Military leaders and defense officials are an obvious and influential example. They are employed to exercise a particular perspective on security issues. They carry distinct institutional responsibilities and are responsive to bureaucratic imperatives that few on the “outside” would feel.

Fundamentally, the elite-public divide reflects a divergence in strategic assumptions and dispositions. Of course, the foreign policy elite itself divides into different strategic camps. MIT political scientist Barry Posen offered one possible typology of these strategic currents in a seminal 1997 analysis: neo-isolationist, selective engagement, collective security, and primacy.[66] Other typologies are possible, too.[67] And this variety of strategic inclinations finds analogs at the grassroots.[68]

The persistent elite-public opinion gap suggests that these strategic tendencies are proportioned differently among elite actors and the general public. Analogs of selective engagement, isolationism, and various forms of cooperative security seem to find greater representation at the grassroots than in the national security establishment, where Primacy prevails.

The allure of primacy

Since the mid-1990s, the “primacist” view has dominated official U.S. security policy, having both neoliberal and neoconservative forms.[69] It is distinguished by seeking to broadly exercise the “sole superpower” status that America won as a consequence of the Soviet Union’s demise.[70] Characteristically, the primacist trend takes America to be the world’s “indispensable nation” (or some such).[71] And it sees U.S. global leadership and military predominance as necessary to both U.S. and global security.

The special role that Primacy affords to armed forces corresponds with the fact that it is only in the military dimension that the world is truly unipolar.[72] In this realm, America’s competitive advantage is profound. Consistent with this, the primacist approach has sought to expand American-led military alliances and to use U.S. military power more proactively.[73] This reflects an increased faith in both the utility of war and the suasive power of military brinkmanship.

The notion of putting military primacy to use has held sway over post-Cold War security policy for several reasons. It resonated strongly with the sense of triumph, optimism, and opportunity that followed the Cold War’s end and America’s victory in the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf conflict. The end of the East-West divide inspired elite visions of global transformation that have aimed variously to enlarge the sphere of market democracy, exercise a “responsibility to protect” vulnerable populations everywhere, and even pursue an “An End to Evil.”[74] The notion of leveraging U.S. military primacy spoke to all these visions and goals as an enabling strategy. It also could accommodate a Realist rationale that saw the provision of “security goods” to other nations as a way for the United States to gain quid pro quo benefits in policy areas where it did not enjoy a strong competitive advantage.[75] After 2001, assertive military activism became the measure of a president’s willingness to cement U.S. global leadership and “win the peace.”

Most important to the rise and resilience of the primacist approach has been the institutional momentum and political clout of the Pentagon. It is unlikely that the United States would have attempted a security strategy based on global military superiority and activism if not for the fact that America’s immense defense establishment was already a “force in being” at the start of the new era. It was (and remains) a force not only in the military sense, but also the economic and political.

The Pentagon imperative

In 1992, defense industry analysts were anxiously predicting a 50% reduction in defense spending.[76] The strategy of proactive military primacy charted a different course. It promised to preserve, build on, transform, and use much of America’s existing military structure in a bid to reshape the global strategic environment. Pentagon leaders, the Joint Staff, and the armed forces’ policy centers and contracted think tanks (such as Rand Corporation) played a central role in developing both the strategy and related concepts (such as “full-spectrum dominance.”)[77] And they produced the four Quadrennial Defense Reviews that helped guide implementation of these ideas.[78]

The Pentagon’s role in this effort does not mean that military leaders became unequivocal advocates of military activism, however. In fact, they have often proved more cautious than civilian leaders about initiating military operations abroad and have frequently expressed reservations about the types and numbers of missions assigned them.[79] Despite such concerns, the preservation of a large military in the post-Soviet era comes with a “use it or lose it” rider. Static deterrence is no longer reason enough to stress the treasury. This was implicit in Madeline Albright’s complaint to General Colin Powell when he resisted military intervention in the Balkans conflict: "What's the point of having this superb military...if we can't use it?"[80]

Albright’s proposition implies a two-way bargain, of course. Military leaders are strongly motivated to procure the resources they think they need in order to confidently perform the missions assigned them. And a very active military can make more credible demands on resources. Putative shortfalls are likely to spur politically potent claims of declining military readiness due to high operational tempo.[81] This tango between civilian and military leaders puts persistent upward pressure on defense spending.

Simple institutional momentum and bureaucratic imperatives also compel military leaders to constantly bargain for bigger budgets. Large and growing budgets serve to reduce friction in the functioning of DoD's four independent services and hundreds of subordinate commands, agencies, and offices. The Pentagon’s six geographic commands, in particular, constitute a strong constituency for retaining a large overseas military presence – war or no war. And regional commanders have grown more influential over time.[82] Finally, the prospect of actualizing “full spectrum dominance” has intrinsic appeal to both the defense industry and the armed services – even if never fully employed.

Easiest to understand is the defense industry’s affinity for any strategy that entails exceptionally high levels of spending. Between 1985 and 1998, annual Pentagon spending on goods and services declined from $360 billion to $215 billion (2014 USD). It then grew dramatically after 1998, topping off at $545 billion annually in 2008. This is a margin of commercial activity worth fighting for. (Under sequestration, annual Pentagon purchases would surely fall back to below $350 billion.)[83]

Managing the gap

Although dominant among elites, the primacist view has been at odds with public preferences throughout most of the post-Cold War era. This is what time-series polling on global engagement indicates. The gap narrowed only in the years immediately following victory in the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf and the September 2001 terrorist attacks. Today, after a decade of energetic military activism, the gap is wider than ever.

If there is a message in the public’s current mood it is that the type of engagement prevailing for the past two decades has not delivered on its promise – and certainly not at an acceptable cost. From a primacist perspective, however, the gap simply evinces popular myopia and a deficit of national will and leadership. This is the principal message of the recent commentary decrying “neo-isolationism,” which aims to pinch the gap. And, in fact, the gap is tractable – at least temporarily.

Disparate strategic dispositions can converge for a time on discrete policy choices. This was the case during the Second World War after Pearl Harbor. It also holds true for the initial response to the 9/11 attacks. Moreover, the public’s appreciation of policy issues and options can be influenced so as to induce accord, as was the case in the months leading up to the 2003 Iraq war.[84] The public’s perception of international events and its appreciation of policy choices are quite susceptible to shaping by institutional leaders, policy experts, and the news media.[85] These may seek to influence opinion either by direct appeals based on social authority or by filtering, framing, or “spinning” the information they convey.[86]

In the security policy arena, Second World War metaphors are common and effective framing devices. These include allusions to Hitler, Munich, Pearl Harbor, appeasement, and isolationism.[87] Such are now fully in play with regard to the Ukraine and Syria crises.[88] Message frames are meant to evoke a desired response by associating one event or policy with another more evocative one. If successful, the association sets the terms of public discussion in ways that privilege one type of response over another. Metaphors that appeal to fear and uncertainty can be especially effective in disabling reasoned discourse.[89]

Second World War message frames, in particular, serve to center public discourse on the alarming prospect of a catastrophic “breakout” by an unrelenting and incomparably powerful foe. Of course, analogy is no substitute for analysis. Nonetheless, if sufficiently evocative, it can move the public to support overseas intervention. Once war begins, “tit-for-tat” and “rally ‘round the flag” opinion dynamics come into play, and these may take years to run their course.

5. Defense Spending, Global Engagement, and Public Opinion

America’s current national security strategy is nothing if not expensive. Since 1998, when post-Cold War retrenchment ended, the United States has allotted approximately $10 trillion (2014 USD) to the Department of Defense, including war funding. Today, America devotes 4% of GDP to defense, which is about twice the country average for the rest of the world.[90]

At least 25% of the $10 trillion spent on defense is attributable to choosing a security strategy based on exercising global military predominance.[91] Near the opposite end of the spectrum, a quasi-isolationist “Fortress America” posture might have cost $4 trillion over the past 16 years.[92] And, of course, there are numerous options between the two.[93]

Energetic military activism requires large armed forces and exceptional levels of defense expenditure. And big spending requires a degree of public acquiescence, if not assent. The public can react to what it views as unwise activism by favoring budget restraint, as currently seems the case. But the public’s qualms about military intervention do not imply a consistent lack of support for high levels of military spending. In fact, public sentiments about the Pentagon budget reflect a variety of inputs. A better understanding of these and how they interact is a prerequisite to understanding the current trend in opinion.

For most years since 1969 the Gallup organization has polled the U.S. public on defense spending, asking respondents if they think the nation is spending too little, too much, or about the right amount on defense.[94] This polling provides a basis for understanding how global activism, defense spending, and other factors influence public opinion.

Gallup Polls

Recent Trends in Public Opinion

During the post-Cold War era U.S. public opinion on defense spending has moved from majority support for significant reductions to plurality support for increased spending back to plurality support for cuts. To summarize the findings of Gallup and other polls:[95]

1985-1995: A strong plurality of Americans support reductions in defense spending throughout this period. A clear majority support cuts in 1990.

1995-1998: A transition period during which preference for the “status quo” increases and is then supplanted by pluralities favoring increased spending.

1998-2003: Significant public support for increased spending is evident. (Interestingly, this support is especially strong in 2000 and 2001 before the 9/11 attacks.)

2003-2007: By early 2003, public opinion is shifting toward “spend less.” This sentiment grows steadily between 2003 and 2006, along with concerns about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

2007-2008: “Spend less” sentiment surges further upward as the financial and economic crisis takes hold and Operation Iraqi Freedom seems to mire in civil war.

2009-2010: “Spend less” sentiment moderates somewhat as an untested Democrat takes the presidential helm.

2011-2012: “Spend less” rebounds as the nation focuses intently on reducing the federal debt and deficit.

Since 2012 Pentagon spending has declined in both real and nominal terms. With this, the public’s sense that America is spending too much seems to have moderated somewhat, although in Gallup’s early 2014 survey it still out-polls “spend more” by 37% to 28%.

Public Opinion In Context

Two background factors relevant to assessing changes in feelings about defense spending are (I) changes in the level of spending and (ii) changes in fiscal and economic conditions.

Six Decades of Pentagon Spending

How much the United States spends on its armed forces is one thing. What the general public knows and feels about defense spending quite another. Still, a review of actual spending levels can help assign meaning to public views. Looking at levels of Pentagon spending over the past 60 years, profound changes are evident. (Fig. 5.)

Defense Spending

Summarizing these changes for the most recent three decades:

1985 to 1998: Pentagon budget authority declines by 35% in real terms. This decline in spending is comparable to those following the Vietnam and Korean wars (although the end of East-West contention had much greater strategic import).

1998 to 2009: Pentagon spending rebounds, growing 92%. This rebound in spending is unprecedented in size – a surge comparable to the Vietnam- and Reagan-era buildups combined. It produced five of the seven highest Pentagon budgets since 1948. Notably, the 2010 budget is 24% higher in real terms than the budget in 1985 (for a military only 68% as large).

2009 to 2014: Pentagon budget authority (including war costs) recedes by about 21% (when adjusted for inflation). Nonetheless, the 2014 budget remains 51% above the 1998 level. In real terms, it is a level only slightly below the high-point of the Reagan era.

Fiscal and Economic Conditions

Fiscal and economic conditions may serve as a more salient reference point for the public’s assessment of defense (and other) spending simply because they determine citizens’ general sense of resource scarcity. There were three recessionary cycles during the 1985-2014 period as measured by changes in GDP: July 1990 to March 1991, March-November 2001, and Dec 2007 to June 2009. (Fig. 6.) Better measures of how most Americans experienced these economic fluctuations are the changes in unemployment rates and Median Household Income (MHI). Figure 6 summarizes key fiscal and economic data for several time periods between 1985 and 2014. It shows far more favorable conditions for non-controversial budget growth at the end of the 1990s, relative to the periods that preceded or followed.

Figure 6. Change in Fiscal and Economic Conditions 1985-2014


Federal Deficit or Surplus as % GDP


Real Growth in Median Household Income

Real Growth in Per Capita GDP



1985: 5%

1989: 2.7%

1992: 4.4%

1985: 7.4%

1989: 5%

1992: 7.8%





2000: 2.3%

2000: 3.9%





2009: 9.8% GDP

2012: 6.7% GDP

2009: 10%

2012: 7.9%




Deficit: 3.5% GDP


+2.5% since 2012

+3.9% since 2012






Sources: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, "Real Median Household Income in the United States" and “Federal Surplus or Deficit as Percent of Gross Domestic Product”; U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, "Current-dollar and real GDP"; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey"; and, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, "Historical Gross Domestic Product Per Capita 1969-2014."

What Drives Public Opinion On Defense Spending?

Gallup polling over a 45-year period can give the impression that public support for defense spending varies inversely with movements in the Pentagon budget. As the budget declines, the sentiment that America is spending “too little” seems to gain adherents; As spending rises, so does the feeling that the nation is spending “too much.” This apparent “see-saw” pattern in opinion does not explain much about motive forces, however. It is an artifact of a process that has less to do with absolute levels of defense expenditure than with the gap between leaders and led over U.S. national security strategy and practice.

The American public will pay to ensure a resilient defense. And it is willing to go to war for a variety of reasons. What it lacks, on balance, is a “crusading spirit” with regard to the use of force abroad – whether the aim is posed in moral, humanitarian, political, or geopolitical terms. It also has low tolerance for military commitments and investments that it perceives as unnecessary, unrealistic, or inefficient.

At heart, the gap between primacy advocates and the general public resides in the fact that they differently experience and weigh costs and benefits. Activist strategies tend inherently to overestimate the utility of force while underestimating its costs and negative repercussions. Pentagon leaders, while not necessarily “activist” in their views, appreciate national interests from a Pentagon-centric perspective. Also, the Pentagon is far more forgiving of its inefficiencies than is the public.[96]

Singular events such as Pearl Harbor or the 9/11 attacks can produce elite-public convergence. Or convergence can be manufactured. But the national security establishment marches to the beat of its own drummers, leading soon to outcomes that exceed the limits of public tolerance. Public perceptions can be managed, but eventually the bill comes due – as it did in 2007 and 2008.[97] And this defines the changing arc of public opinion on defense spending.

The importance of being #1

Polling by Gallup over the past 20 years shows that majorities of Americans – 60% or more – consistently voice a preference for America being the world's top military power.[98] This result is confirmed by Pew Center polling.[99] A slightly smaller majority consistently asserts its confidence that the U.S. military is, in fact, unsurpassed.[100] Similar questioning by the Chicago Council confirm these findings:[101] Most Americans consistently believe in and value America's position as the world's top military power.[102]

That a majority of Americans value military superiority may seem at odds with the public’s preference for diplomacy over war, its disapproval of unilateralism, and its apprehensions about military activism. However, these responses are easily reconciled if the preference for superiority is understood as reflecting a bedrock belief in the deterrent power of a strong military.

Military superiority is viewed at the grassroots as a means of dissuasion and as a form of “crisis insurance.” This view need not (and, empirically, does not) entail support for routine large-scale overseas activism. Indeed, a preference for military superiority is consistent with a variety of postures, including an isolationist one. Still, the value afforded superiority does imply enduring support for substantial levels of military spending. And it entails acute sensitivity to issues of defense sufficiency – as a matter of homeland protection, if nothing else. These corollaries provide leverage to those who wish to build support for higher levels of spending, regardless of its purpose.

As the public sees it: How much is enough?

Most polling does not engage respondents in a deliberate process of closely examining and weighing defense budget realities and options. One exception is a 2012 poll conducted by the Program for Public Consultation (PPC)[103] It provided respondents with detailed background information and summary arguments for increasing and decreasing spending. The result was a majority opinion favoring an 11% reduction in the Pentagon base budget from the 2012 level which, in real terms, would be roughly equivalent to the effects of sequestration. This may be the best available indication of well-informed public opinion on the topic. But it is not indicative of how public opinion usually takes form. (And, not surprisingly, it is at odds with the findings of less intensive or refined polling, which in recent years shows plurality but not majority support for cuts).

Pivotal to understanding trends in opinion on defense budgeting is the fact that most U.S. citizens actually have little idea of how much the nation spends on its military – not in absolute terms, nor relative to other federal spending, nor relative to what other nations spend.[104] At best, national media may broadly convey a sense of whether the Pentagon budget is slated to grow or shrink in a particular year. And this is likely to be salient news only to the extent and in the way that interested parties make it one.

Who makes security policy?

The American electorate does not make national security policy, of course. Nor does it decide absolute levels of Pentagon spending, which instead reflect precedent and the interplay of institutional interests. At best, the electorate can only affirm or oppose aspects of security policy through intermittent political activity and expression. Elections and primaries offer periodic avenues for the expression of popular will, but voter choice is tightly constrained and the impact of that choice on specific foreign and security policy options is attenuated, indirect, and imprecise. Nonetheless, political leaders and parties suffer a general decrement in credibility and influence if seen to stand against strong majority opinion on salient policy issues.

There are numerous currents of institutional interest and authority that interact to shape American practice in the security realm.[105] Principal among the currents affecting defense spending in particular are:

        The efforts of national security managers to implement official security policy;

        The doctrinal preferences of the armed services;

        The contending bureaucratic interests of the State Department, Defense Department, individual armed services, and subordinate military commands, agencies, and offices;

        The constituency interests of influential members of Congress;

        The commercial interests of the defense industry; and,

        The partisan political interests of the White House and major political parties.

A particular leader or agency may be implicated in more than one of these currents, but each current has its own trajectory and momentum. And all strive to influence the electorate which has the power, over time, to bind security policy at the margins – as is the case today with regard to defense spending and new military commitments abroad.

Factors shaping public opinion

Intensive polling by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) has shown that the preferences expressed by a respondent pool will vary significantly depending on how questions about defense spending are framed.[106] Alternately mentioning the prospect of higher taxes, federal deficits, domestic needs, foreign threats, the putative need to maintain U.S. military superiority, or the opinions of U.S. political leaders can flip the balance between “spend more” and “spend less.” Likewise, framing the question in different ways can swell or shrink the proportion of respondents expressing support for status quo spending trends.

The PIPA results highlight the fact that broader strategic, political, and economic considerations play a key part in shaping public sentiments about defense spending. These form the backdrop in everyday life and media representation to the public’s thinking about how much emphasis to put on additional investments in military power. As suggested above, public responses to questions about Pentagon budgets have little to do with absolute levels of spending. What matters is how the perceived rise or fall in spending resonates with broader considerations. Thus, public responses to simple polling questions on defense spending are best understood as reflecting sentiments about a broader mix of issues.

Drawing on the PIPA and other survey results, the considerations that can significantly affect public opinion about defense spending include:[107]

         Perceived changes in defense spending,
         Perceptions of the strategic environment and threats to U.S. security,
         Perceptions of national strength and defense preparedness,
         New security policy initiatives (including war) and their outcomes,
         Economic and fiscal conditions, and
         Presumed trade-offs between defense and other government spending.

Some of these inputs are directly experienced by the public, for instance: personal economic circumstances. Much else is mediated (as noted previously) by opinion-leaders and thus subject to manipulation and framing.[108] In the case of defense preparedness, warnings of a "hollow military" set an especially effective message frame. They invoke uncertainty and speak to Americans' invariant desire for reliable protection. This works by centering discussion on the prospect of a sudden, unanticipated, and catastrophic collapse of defense capabilities.[109]

Citizens are only selectively receptive to opinion leaders, however; They tend to privilege those leaders whose general disposition echoes their own. This makes partisan and ideological allegiances important factors in opinion formation. It also means that any apparent consensus among Democratic and Republican leaders is especially powerful in shaping public opinion.[110]

Polling on Military Strength and Preparedness

Since 1983, Gallup has also periodically asked respondents whether they felt that U.S. defenses were "stronger now than needs to be, not strong enough, or about right."[111] (Fig. 7.) In all years but 2007 and 2008, pluralities felt U.S. military capability was "about right." Nonetheless, the feeling that America’s defenses are "not strong enough" has always attracted a sizable minority – in most years ranging between 32% and 47% of respondents. In 2007 and 2008, this sentiment gained plurality assent.

A related question polled by Gallup since 2001 has asked if respondents feel satisfied or dissatisfied with America’s military strength and preparedness.[112 ] Significant majorities have expressed satisfaction in all years polled, although the size of these majorities has ranged from 61% to 83%.[113] The variation in “defense satisfaction” roughly accords with changes in feelings about defense strength, as might be expected. More surprising is how both these measures have related to sentiments about military spending.

Figure 7. Gallup Polling on Military Spending, Strength, and Preparedness


DoD Budget

% Change*

Level of Pentagon Spending
% respondents

Strength of National Defenses
% respondents

Military Strength and Preparedness
% respondents


Too Much

About Right

Too Little

Excess Strength

















































































































































2000 Aug










2000 May


















































* Percentage reflects budget change in current dollar amounts
** Majority/plurality position appears in bold

Sources: Gallup, Military and National Defense,; DoD, “National Defense Budget Estimates for FY2015,” May 2014,

Changes in public sentiments about U.S. defense strength and preparedness do not correlate uniformly with public opinion on defense spending. Specifically, increased expressions of dissatisfaction with defense do not necessarily imply public support for increased spending. A closer look suggests that these questions access something more than the public’s assessment of how well U.S. defenses match up with perceived threats. Minimally, they also reflect the public’s judgment on the use of defense resources. Is it wise, appropriate, necessary, and efficient? When the answer to any of these is “no,” there is little reason to spend more. Thus, in some circumstances, responses that show increased public concern about national defense correlate with greater support for spending less.

Changes in public “defense satisfaction”

Sentiment regarding defense strength and preparedness underwent several swings during the post-Cold War period. First, it changed dramatically between 1990 and early 2001, as the public’s desire for a post-Cold War “peace dividend” seemed to evaporate. The percentage of Americans feeling that the nation was not “as strong as it needed to be” rose from 17% in 1990 to 44% in early 2001. Much of this change occurred after 1998 in response to intense public controversy over military readiness.

Opinion on defense spending underwent a parallel change during these years. In 1993, a plurality of Americans had favored defense cuts – 42% vs. 17%. By February 2001, this had transformed into a plurality favoring increases – 41% vs. 19%.[114] This reflected “hollow force” concerns, which a significant rise in spending between 1998 and 2001 had done little to retire.

Public opinion again fluctuated dramatically during the 2001-2008 period – in two steps. First, between 2001 and 2004, satisfaction with U.S. defense preparedness rebounded and the proportion of Americans feeling that the nation was not strong enough declined. This change seemingly occurred in response to initial progress in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. As the wars dragged on after 2004, however, “defense satisfaction” eroded.

By 2007 and 2008, a plurality of respondents chose the Gallup option “not strong enough” when queried about U.S. defenses. This time, however, the segment of the public feeling that the nation was spending “too much” on defense rose from 19% to 44% – a strong plurality sentiment. And the proportion feeling that the United States was spending too little plunged from 41% to 22%. During 2007 and 2008, at least one-third of Americans favored cutting the defense budget while simultaneously feeling that U.S. defense strength was either “about right” or “not enough.” These seemingly contradictory sentiments can be reconciled when understood against the backdrop of economic crisis and growing disillusionment with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

By mid-2005, absolute majorities of Americans were seeing the Iraq war as a costly mistake. By 2008, more than 60% shared this view. The Gallup results on defense satisfaction and spending suggest that, after 2004, the public became increasingly sensitive to the limits of America’s “top military power” status and increasingly attentive to the balance of costs and benefits associated with war. This gave greater traction to the distinction between necessary and unnecessary military action – a distinction that the primacy strategy typically obfuscates. The pivotal question became, Which military goals are realistic and necessary – and which are not?

The public grows war wise

The experience of war and recession help explain why the public’s expressed dissatisfaction with American defenses meant and implied different things in 2000 and 2008.

In 2008, public opinion had been conditioned by years of costly and indecisive war. Among other effects, this fractured leadership consensus. By contrast, the turn of opinion in 1998-2000 occurred in the context of intense controversy over a purported decline in military readiness and apparent bipartisan accord on the need to increase defense spending. The startling success of the 1991 Gulf War continued to govern sentiments about the utility of force.

The difference in economic conditions is also important. Beginning in 2007, economic and fiscal crises led the public to set a tougher standard when judging the worthiness of war efforts. By contrast, the economy was booming during the mid- to late 1990s.

Between 1993 and 2000, median household income had grown 14.5% in real terms and the federal budget had moved into surplus. Stock market values grew more than 200%, reflecting an economic sensibility that Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan called “irrational exuberance.”[115] In this context, defense policy makers and analysts could assume a “money to burn” attitude with relative impunity. As one analyst opined: “A nation with a projected $1.9 trillion budget surplus can afford consistently to allocate a minimum of 4 percent of its GDP to ensure its security.”[116] Some argue similarly today but with much less credibility. Why? Because between 2000 and 2011, MHI dropped 9% and federal deficits ballooned past $1.3 trillion.

A pending shift in opinion on defense spending?

Since 2011 public satisfaction with military preparedness has increased and clear majorities once again feel that U.S. defense strength is “about right.” This is concurrent with Pentagon spending cuts and plurality support for additional cuts. It also is coinciding with public opposition to substantial new military initiatives.

The public’s current reluctance to open new war fronts does not mean that it will continue to favor defense budget restraint, however. Several of the variables that affect public attitudes are changing – notably, economic and fiscal conditions. And several are especially susceptible to leadership influence. Principal among these are assessments of the threat environment and the health of America’s armed forces. Finally, domestic political developments favor change. Relevant in the political sphere is the onset of a period of intense election campaigning. This is already influencing how political leaders are framing global issues and policy choices, including defense spending.

Twice in the past 40 years public opinion on defense spending shifted swiftly and dramatically from favoring reduced spending to favoring more. Both periods of change pivoted on bitter election campaigns. The first period was 1978-1982. The second was 1998-2001, as mentioned above. Comparing these pivot points with current conditions suggests that the public may soon be amenable to a rebound in defense spending – not in order to enable increased military activism but, paradoxically, as an alternative to it.

6. Pentagon Budget Pivot Points: 1978 and 1998

The impact of domestic politics on how the public views defense spending is evident in several periods of budget change – 1978-1981 and 1998-2000. Both share distinctive characteristics, some of which are also evident today. And in both cases, post-war declines in military spending ended and the Pentagon budget began to rebound.

The first period covers most of the Carter administration years. President Carter took office at the end of the post-Vietnam war drawdown in military personnel and budgets. Between 1968 and 1977, the Pentagon budget had declined by 30% in real terms, while the pool of active-component military personnel contracted by 38.5%. In early 1976 Gallup polling suggested that the public was supportive of this trend with 36% of respondents saying that America still spent “too much” on defense and only 22% saying it spent “too little.” Soon after, however, public sentiment began to move in the opposite direction as did Carter’s defense budgets.

The last Carter defense budget was 12.5% higher in real terms than the last Ford defense budget. This did not alter the trend in public sentiment, however. Gallup polling shows that “spend more” sentiment continued to increase, rising from 22% of respondents in 1976 to 51% in 1981 – a rare instance of absolute majority support for budget change.

The second period corresponds with President Clinton’s second term, which marked the end of the post-Cold War drawdown. Between 1985 and 1997, the Pentagon budget had declined 35.6% in real terms, while active military personnel declined in number by 32%. The Clinton administration began to reverse the downward spending trend in early 1998 with its submission of the Fiscal Year 1999 budget. Between 1998 and 2001, the defense budget rose by almost 11% in real terms (not counting supplemental funding added by the Bush administration). Again, the rise in spending did not ease public sentiment for increased spending. Between 1998 and early 2001, the percentage of the public who thought we were spending too little on defense actually rose from 26% to 41%.

Five factors played a role in effecting a shift in public opinion during both periods:

First, the standing president seemed weakened politically by domestic developments – Carter, by persistent stagflation and the energy crisis; Clinton, by the Lewinsky scandal and his subsequent impeachment (Dec 1998).

Second, there were hotly contested and fiercely polarized election campaigns during which Democrats felt pressed to protect their right flank.

Third, partisan politics deeply inflected public debate of new security challenges abroad.

Fourth, military leaders began to warn insistently of a putative “hollowing” of the armed forces – meaning a sharp decline in combat readiness. Allegations of a weakened military and reports of trouble abroad served as reciprocal “frames,” each reinforcing the other.

Fifth, there was the appearance of a bipartisan consensus taking form among policy leaders in support of higher levels of defense spending, or greater assertiveness abroad, or both.

Bipartisan consensus or its appearance can have a powerful effect on public opinion, as trusted leaders on all sides seem to point in the same direction.[117] Military leaders in particular have unique sway.[118] During both periods of transition, public opinion seemed to follow the trend of a new defense budget consensus. However, as budgets rose and the presidency changed hands, the appearance of elite consensus evaporated and public opinion shifted back toward a “spend less” preference.[119]

Trouble at home, trouble abroad, trouble ahead

Especially prominent during the Carter years was the Iranian U.S. hostage-taking crisis (November 1979) and the failed "Eagle Claw" hostage rescue operation. Also relevant were the Nicaraguan revolution (1977-1979), the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (December 1979), and ongoing Soviet-Cuban intervention in Angola and the Ethiopia-Somalia war. As putative challenges to U.S. or allied interests, none of these were as significant as the Vietnam and Korean wars, the Cuban missile crisis, or earlier Soviet interventions in Eastern Europe. Nonetheless, they did accentuate Soviet-Cuban military activism and U.S. military failure in the face of a new regional adversary, Iran.

Clinton’s second term saw no foreign policy debacles comparable to the lingering Iranian hostage crisis of the Carter years. However, there were growing concerns among experts and the public that the United States was facing new security challenges, notably: Al Qaeda and China.[120] There were three serious terrorist attacks on U.S. personnel and assets abroad between 1996 and 2000, and at least two of these were the work of bin Laden.[121] Concerns also focused on Chinese military developments after the 1995-1996 Taiwan Straits crisis. By 1998, U.S. policymakers and analysts were routinely treating China as a potential regional competitor to the United States.[122] A final irritant throughout Clinton’s second term was Saddam Hussein who, despite a short intense U.S. bombing campaign in 1998, seemed to be effectively resisting arms control efforts while the international coalition supporting sanctions slowly frayed.

Challenged from the right, Democratic administrations took a hawkish turn during both periods. Few Republicans were as hawkish as Carter’s national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, especially after 1978 as he pushed for activation of the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (1980) and formulated the “Carter Doctrine” (which designated the Persian Gulf as an area of vital interest to be protected “by any means necessary”).[123] The Carter Administration also took the controversial step of shifting America’s nuclear posture further along to a warfighting stance.[124]

The Clinton administration took a bellicose turn in 1998-1999, conducting three significant combat operations over an eight month period beginning in August 1998: Operations Infinite Reach (Sudan and Afghanistan), Desert Fox (Iraq), and Allied Force (former Yugoslavia). (August 1998 through February 1999 also was a pivotal period in the Lewinsky scandal, encompassing Clinton’s grand jury testimony and impeachment.)

The Clinton administration faced incessant complaints about overusing and misusing the armed forces abroad. Although Clinton did conduct significant contingency operations in eight countries during his two terms, the overall number of troop/days that military personnel spent deployed in such operations was less than 15% the average during the subsequent Bush administration.[125] More to the point was the character of some of the Clinton initiatives; They were peace and humanitarian operations, which some military and congressional leaders thought impaired military readiness and distracted the armed forces from their principal role.[126] Some Senators and Congress members (mostly Republicans) also complained that these operations suffered from poorly defined or implausible objectives and did not clearly serve the national interest. This was part of a more general conservative opposition to the administration’s multilateralism and institutionalism. Neoliberal and neoconservative interventionists responded by playing the “isolationism” card, helping to establish a consensus that equated restraint with isolationism.[127]

There were some indications during Clinton’s second term that America’s armed forces were not yet well-adapted to the new challenges facing America. Attempts to interdict Al Qaeda leadership with cruise missile attacks in 1998 failed. And Operation Allied Force (1999), which aimed to compel Yugoslav withdrawal from Kosovo province, took longer than expected. Although the operation achieved its goals, the U.S. military effort was deemed “disjointed.” The U.S. Army in particular had a hard time playing a timely, meaningful role.[128] None of these shortfalls implied the need for a dramatic increase in defense spending.[129] Nonetheless, they were worthy of concern, received a great deal of media attention, and provided grist for partisan mills.

Mollifying the Chiefs and biasing public debate

Military leaders enjoy unique political leverage in the United States in large part due to the status of the institutions they lead. The U.S. armed forces routinely register as the most trusted of American institutions, out-polling even religious institutions.[130] Although military leaders employ this leverage gingerly, the domestic problems faced by both the Carter and Clinton administrations gave military leaders greater latitude to resist administration narratives. Indeed, during Clinton administration’s final years the Joint Chiefs were in virtual revolt.[131]

The centerpiece of Pentagon dissatisfaction during both periods of transition was the putative “hollowing” of the armed forces, presumably due to budget reductions.[132] In congressional testimony, the Joint Chiefs’ support for administration budgets became faint and pro forma, while they instead emphasized increased risk and the prospective erosion of military capabilities over time. The effect of their congressional testimony was to inflame the issue.

In retrospect, readiness problems were not nearly as serious as military leaders claimed – and certainly not during the Clinton years.[133] Nor were they principally the consequence of budget reductions. While gross levels of Pentagon spending had declined in the decade before readiness issues became news, military expenditures per active-duty person in uniform actually grew in real terms over previous years during both the Carter and Clinton administrations.[134] This was partly because reductions in gross spending were matched by reductions in force size. For instance, operations and maintenance spending per active-duty troop in 1998 was 30% higher than in 1985, corrected for inflation. Still, the allegations, buttressed by authoritative military officials, were politically potent.

During both transition periods, Democratic and Republican leaders responded to Pentagon assertiveness by enacting or proposing hikes in spending (while disagreeing about the appropriate amount). Thus, both the Reagan- and G.W. Bush-era military buildups actually began during the previous administrations – three or four years before the presidency changed hands. Democrats may have hoped to quell Pentagon protests and protect their right flank, but accommodation also served to validate “hollow force” claims and contribute to upward pressure on the budget.

The 2000 election campaign featured Democratic and Republican candidates in a bidding war over boosting defense spending, which by June 2000 had already grown nearly 13% above its 1997 low point in real terms.[135] Neither linked the prospect of increased defense spending to an increase in overseas activism, however. Indeed, they matched their spending competition with dueling rhetoric about the need for America to practice humility abroad.[136] This accorded with public sentiment favoring a strong but reserved America, and it played on the prospect of increasing defense spending as an alternative to activism, rather than an enabler of it.

Second thoughts on defense spending

As noted above, the surge in support for defense spending was short-lived during both periods:

        By late 1982 public sentiment had returned to Vietnam syndrome levels with 16% of the population saying America was spending “too little” and 41% saying that it was spending too much.

        Between February 2001 and February 2004, the proportion of Gallup respondents wanting increased spending dropped from 41% to 22%, while the proportion wanting less increased from 19% to 31%.

These were not simply judgments against the rise in spending levels. Both periods of remission were marked by rising deficits and economic troubles.[137] The change in public mood also involved emerging dissatisfaction with changes in U.S. military posture. In the case of the Reagan administration, the change was especially rapid.

Reagan took office in 1981 with the public worried about American weakness abroad and expressing 51% support for increased Pentagon spending. Only 15% thought the nation was already spending too much. Two years later, the defense budget had grown by 30%. However, the economy had entered a recessionary cycle and public concern grew about what seemed a rash and bellicose (or "war seeking") turn in U.S. policy.[138] As a result, public sentiment about defense spending flipped, Reagan's popularity rating dropped from 51% to 43%, and Republicans lost 26 House seats in the 1982 mid-term election.

7. The Obama Years: A Captive Presidency

Pentagon spending: Going along to get along

President Obama has avoided the type of difficulties described above – at least until recently. Unlike Carter, he did not begin his presidency at the end of a period of reductions in the military’s size and budget – quite the opposite. And, unlike Clinton, he did not himself implement reductions during his first years in office. Despite the nation’s economic and fiscal crisis, Obama’s first four Pentagon budgets (adjusted for inflation) provided total funding equal to that provided in Bush’s last four – approximately $2.8 trillion in each case.[139]

While both the Carter and Clinton administrations found themselves at logger-heads with the Pentagon brass over a variety of issues, President Obama has proved more accommodating – for instance, by acceding to the Afghanistan troop surge.[140] More significant was his response to the service chiefs’ dissatisfaction with his first ten-year spending plan (offered early in 2009). His next year’s plan (Fiscal Year 2011) boosted the ten-year Pentagon base budget by five percent. It is against this boosted level that subsequent DoD savings plans were measured.

Although contention over budgeting grew intense beginning in 2011, this was part of the larger struggle to reduce federal debt, deficits, and spending. In practical terms, defense spending decisions were bound by the bipartisan Budget Control Act of 2011, which dictated a rollback. In this context, the Obama administration proffered plans that would bring the Pentagon budget more in line with BCA discretionary spending caps, while also arguing strenuously against deeper “sequestration” cuts. The administration successfully cast the prospect of such cuts as a problem whose source was Congressional gridlock.[141]

Obama’s secretaries of defense, chairmen of the JCS, and service chiefs were free to pressure Congress to avert sequestration and lift the caps on discretionary spending – a goal shared by the President. Pentagon leaders spared no hyperbole in opposing measures that would reduce the peacetime defense budget much below $520 billion.[142] To mitigate DoD’s concerns, the administration allowed the migration of costs from the base DoD budget to the Overseas Contingency account, which was not capped by the BCA. And, in 2014, the President proposed an “Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative” that, if offset by tax increases and mandatory spending cuts, would give the Pentagon an additional $26 billion for the year.[143]

In sum, from the beginning of his administration, President Obama took an accommodating stance on Pentagon funding – one that his Democratic predecessors had been grudgingly compelled to assume. In this way, he averted an openly contentious relationship with America’s most prestigious institution.

The new look in military activism: lighter and wider

Over the course of his presidency, President Obama has restored and renovated the neoliberal version of the Primacy strategy.[144] This puts greater emphasis on multilateral cooperation and diplomacy than does the neoconservative variety.[145] Hawkish voices (including some in the Pentagon) derided Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq, but it had been decided by Iraq’s failure to renew the US-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement. And, like the drawdown in Afghanistan, it accorded with public opinion.

In some ways, Obama has charted a course part way between those of the Clinton and Bush administrations. In others, he has exceeded both. The so-called “long war against violent extremism” proceeds apace, now as a war that dare not speak its name. However, the administration has stepped away from large-scale protracted military deployments and instead put emphasis on lower-visibility operations and supporting roles for U.S. forces. These include drone and combat aircraft strikes – over 400 drone strikes since Obama took office – covert operations, arms transfers, logistical and intelligence support, training, and other forms of security assistance. Borrowing on the concept of the “non-integrating gap” developed by Thomas Barnett, the Obama strategy is best described as involving a protracted, global, low-intensity campaign against militant or violent non-integrating regimes, movements, and organizations.[146]

U.S. military activism is less intensive and focused today than during the Bush years but more expansive, including new or increased attention to Libya, Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, Somali, and several other African nations. The deployment of special operations forces – now active in more than 100 nations – has expanded significantly as have the number of security cooperation arrangements, which now involve more than 150 nations.[147] The administration’s “Asia pivot” (better described as part of an Asia-Africa “spread”) signals a more consistent and energetic effort to counter-balance and contain Chinese power. Something similar now seems on the agenda for Russia.

The growing scope of U.S. military activism clearly runs counter to the secular trend in public opinion. However, the lower-visibility, light-footprint methods favored by the Obama administration mitigates the tension between public preference and government practice. For instance, when U.S. polls describe overseas drone strikes as attacks on suspected foreign terrorists, between 50% and 80% of respondents typically voice approval.148] This may all seem too diffuse and deliberate from a neoconservative perspective, but it could offer the best hope of sustaining a proactive military strategy given fiscal austerity and the public mood.

8. Transition Point 2016?

Since 2012, the factors associated with past rebounds in support for bigger defense budgets have again become prominent, beginning with a distinct decline in the President’s popularity.[149] The United States is entering a period of intense electoral campaigning that will span 2014-2016. Both the Senate and the Presidency are up for grabs. This favors partisan pyrotechnics. Democratic candidates will focus on protecting their right flanks, per usual. And media and expert discourse will move in a more hawkish direction. Already the leading Democratic contender for the presidency is positioning herself to the right of the Obama administration on recent foreign policy issues.[150]

Thinking inside the box

In several ways, the policy compromises of the Obama administration delimit the current debate, curtailing the prospects for reform. First, the President’s accommodation with the Pentagon on spending has created the appearance of bipartisan leadership accord on the need for baseline spending to significantly exceed one-half trillion dollars annually. For more than three years civilian and military leaders at the Pentagon have been adamant in warning that dipping below this amount by even as little as 5% might have catastrophic consequences. This has primed policy discourse to respond to “hollow force” claims, which are now fully deployed.[151 ] And it has virtually ensured that Democratic and Republican candidates in 2016 will vie in bidding up Pentagon spending (as was the case in 2000).

Judging from recent White House and Republican proposals for Pentagon spending, Presidential candidates in 2016 will probably advocate future baseline Pentagon budgets exceeding $600 billion (then-year dollars). This assumes modest GDP growth, lower federal deficits, and modification of the BCA – all of which are likely. Adjusted for inflation, this would represent a greater than 12% increase over current levels and a budget 50% larger than in 2000-2001.

Obama’s perpetuation of the primacy strategy also has locked policy discourse in a neoliberal versus neoconservative box. The primacy approach overvalues and overplays America’s “sole military superpower” status, seeing security problems everywhere as a challenge to U.S. leadership. It privileges military responses of one sort or the other and focuses debate on the calibration of military action: What type? How much? How long? Discounted by primacists is the possibility that some problems admit only cooperative solutions and that the utility of military or confrontational approaches is limited. Thus, faced with difficult challenges – as in Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine – the primacy approach typically favors escalation. And it legitimates charges of “weakness” should policymakers or the public seek more deliberate or restrained approaches. So it is not surprising that Second World War issue frames are now fully in play – casting Assad and Putin as Hitler, warning against a replay of Munich-like appeasement, and tarring non-interventionary sentiment as isolationist.[152] “Hollow force” claims are also being linked by military leaders to instability abroad.[153]

Will fear compel increased public support for deeper, more energetic intervention, as Walter Russell Meads predicts? Will it compel a rebound in support for defense spending? Despite the hawkish turn in policy discourse, the American public has mostly resisted a rebound in activism and spending.[154] As argued in the introduction, popular opinion on striking ISIS may seem a reversion to interventionism, but it is not.

The ISIS digression

The coverage, debate, and policy regarding ISIS has been driven substantially by domestic partisan politics and by news frenzy. The impact of these illustrates the susceptibility of public opinion to shaping by media and political dynamics. The polling blip on ISIS also shows how “mission creep” and “opinion creep” go hand-in-hand, each pushing the other forward. In the ISIS case, limited U.S. combat action based on a popular humanitarian goal – rescuing the entrapped Yazidi minority – prompted ISIS retaliation on hostage Americans. This dramatically altered U.S. popular assessments of the situation, feeding the partisan mill and creating pressure for both vertical and horizontal escalation. As the administration escalated its response, its domestic political opponents simply revised their criteria of adequacy upward. For President Obama, political credit and gain depends on achieving escalation dominance – not over ISIS (that already exists) but over his domestic opponents. This is a partisan dynamic that can lead the nation deep into costly, unproductive choices.[155] These eventually sober public opinion, but not necessarily before the next election.

Still, historical precedent suggests that the U.S. public will not soon support a return to big protracted military operations abroad – and certainly not the commitment of ground troops. It is worth recalling that Americans’ reluctance to take on major new contingency operations after Vietnam was not truly tested and resolved until the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War – 15 years after the United States exited Vietnam.

Defending with dollars

Public support for a big rebound in Pentagon spending is a more complicated issue. A boost in spending could find support as an acceptable assertion of strength – one that does not necessarily entail increased military activism abroad. Formally, it is consistent with either a “Fortress America” or “Arsenal of Democracy” vision of security. This outcome would accord with the historical precedents set in 1978-1981 and 1998-2000, when Americans favored increased spending but not with a view toward military adventurism.

Weighing against public acceptance of higher defense spending is America’s “new normal” economic circumstance. Although U.S. GDP is slowly recovering, the improvement in the economic circumstances of most Americans has lagged behind:[156]

              U.S. GDP has grown 5% in real terms since 2011. By contrast, median household income grew only about 2.5% during the same period. It remains a good 5% below the pre-recession level, which itself is lower than the level in 2000.

             Unemployment was 6.6% in January 2014. This is much better than the recession high-point of 10%, but significantly short of the pre-recession level of 4.6%.

Still, median household income may reach its pre-recession levels by 2017, making a rise in defense spending more saleable. Much depends on the degree of uniformity among opinion leaders in espousing hawkish and alarmist views on international events and U.S. national defenses.[157]

9. Conclusion

This much is certain: A flexing of the Pentagon’s budget muscles will not redress the problems that vex U.S. security policy. Nor will it heal the recurring gap between official policy and majority opinion. Contrary to public preferences, increased Pentagon spending will enable increased military activism. It also will reduce the pressure on the Pentagon to reform how it uses its prodigious resources. For these reasons, any increase in public support for a rebound in the defense budget will probably be short-lived, as was the case 10- and 30-years ago.

The current trend in official policy represents a missed opportunity. Economic and strategic realities both argue for a thorough reset of U.S. security policy. Recent polling suggests that the American public is ready to consider change. And policy alternatives are available for consideration.[158] What is lacking is positive leadership. An optimistic sign is the emergence since 2011 of bipartisan Congressional and NGO cooperation to restrain defense spending, based mostly on fiscal concerns.[159] This may provide the soil in which a concerted effort to reset security policy can germinate.

A more fundamental concern is the challenge to democratic governance implied by the gap between official security policy and the strategic preferences of most Americans. It is not surprising that there are knowledge gaps between the general public and those who focus professionally on security issues and instruments. Such gaps can be mended through openness and critical public discourse. More intractable are gaps due to the subsumption of public policy by institutional, commercial, and political interests. Again, critical public discourse can serve as a corrective. But special interests work to distort discourse as surely as they distort policy.

The integrity of public debate on security issues minimally requires that opinion leaders put down those tropes, metaphors, and framing devices that appeal to public fear and uncertainty. This includes facile allusions to the threats and failures of the 1930s and 1940s: Hitler, Munich, Pearl Harbor, and isolationism.[160] Such allusions should uniformly face a long hard climb to credibility. The same holds true for most “hollow force” claims made on behalf of America's half-trillion dollar military. If the Pentagon cannot deliver reasonable levels of military security while absorbing more money than the Cold War average then we should look first to failures of defense stewardship or strategy – or both.


1. Recent concerns about isolationism:

         AFP, “Hagel warns Americans of the risks of isolationism,” 6 May 2014, available at

        Megan Thee-Brenan, "Poll Shows Isolationist Streak in Americans," New York Times, 1 May 2013, available at

        Joseph I. Lieberman and Jon Kyl, "The regrets of U.S. isolationism," Washington Post, 26 Apr 2013, available at

        Cathy Young, "The Problem With the New Isolationism," Time, 23 Apr 2014, available at

        Guy Taylor, "Kerry warns budget-cutters; Foreign role 'a necessity' for the U.S.," Washington Times, 21 Feb 2013, available at

        Nicholas Burns, oped, "The new American isolationism; Support for our global role is eroding at a time when it's sorely needed," 30 Jan 2014, available at

        George F. Will, "When isolationism ruled," Washington Post, 22 Sep 2013, available at

        Bill Keller, op-ed, "Our New Isolationism," New York Times, 9 Sep 2013, available at

2. Polling data on prospective U.S. involvement in the Ukraine, Syria, and Iraq crises can be found at Syria-related polls are available at Ukraine-related polls are at Iraq- and ISIS-related polls are at

Additional polling data on Ukraine:

        Emily Ekins, “Poll: 58 Percent of Americans Want the U.S. to Stay Out of Ukraine,” Reason, 4 Apr 2014, available at

        Scott Wilson, "Obama, in Brussels speech, prods Europe to stand up to Russia, bolster NATO," Washington Post, 26 Mar 2014, available at

        Sarah Dutton, et. al., “Poll: Most say U.S. doesn't have a responsibility in Ukraine,” CBS News, 25 Mar 2014, available at

        Aaron Blake, “Few Americans want ‘firm stand' against Russia in Ukraine,” Washington Post, 11 Mar 2014, available at

        Pew Research Center, “Most Say U.S. Should `Not Get Too Involved' in Ukraine Situation; Reluctance Crosses Party Lines,” 11 Mar 2014, available at

Additional polling data on Syria:

        Adrian Croft, "Americans, Europeans oppose Syria intervention: poll," Reuters, 18 Sep 2013, available at

        Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, "Public Backs Diplomatic Approach in Syria, But Distrusts Syria and Russia," 16 Sep 2013, available at

        Pew Research Center, "Opposition to Syrian Airstrikes Surges," 9 Sep 2013, available at

        Andrew Dugan, “U.S. Support for Action in Syria Is Low vs. Past Conflicts; History shows though that support increases should conflict start,” Gallup, 6 Sep 2013, available at

        Steven Kull, "Framing of Syria issue key to public support," CNN, 6 Sep 2013, available at

        Max Fisher, "Syria intervention even less popular than Congress," Washington Post, 26 Aug 2013, available at

        Lesley Wroughton, "As Syria war escalates, Americans cool to U.S. intervention," Reuters, 24 Aug 2013, available at

        Pew Research Center, "Public Remains Opposed to Arming Syrian Rebels," 17 Jun 2013, available at

        Jeffrey M. Jones, “Americans Oppose U.S. Military Involvement in Syria,” Gallup, 31 May 2013, available at

3. Assertions that defense cuts threaten global stability:

        Loren Thompson, “Sequester's Legacy: How A Bad Budget Law Could Lose America's Next War,” Forbes, 2 Sep 2014, available at

        David Francis, “With ISIS Threat, Some in GOP Want Defense Cuts Repealed,” The Fiscal Times, 24 Aug 2014, available at

        Bill Gertz, "Dempsey: Threat of Conflict in Asia Increasing; U.S. Military decline hastens global instability," Washington Free Beacon, 5 Mar 2014, available at

        Drew MacKenzie and John Bachman, "Rumsfeld: U.S. Going Into Decline Due to 'Weakness' in Military,", 18 Feb 2014, available at

        Guy Taylor, "Kerry warns budget-cutters; Foreign role 'a necessity' for the U.S.," Washington Times, 21 Feb 2013, available at

        Armed Forces Journal International, "The pit and the pendulum: Civil-military relations in an age of austerity," 1 May 2013, available at

4. "Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham" translates as "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" with "Levant" referring to Greater Syria (encompassing present day Syria, Lebanon, Israel-Palestine, Jordan, and parts of Turkey).

5. Pentagon budget relief to fight ISIS?

        WJ Hennigan, “Airstrikes against Islamic State may put brake on military cuts,” Seattle Times, 14 Sep 2014, available at

        Jeremy Herb, “Lawmakers see budget opening in ISIL,” Politico, 12 Sep 2014, available at

        Eric Pianin and Rob Garver, “Battle Against ISIS Could Boost the Pentagon’s Budget,” Fiscal Times, 11 Sep 2014, available at

        Brendan McGarry, “Pentagon May Retool Budget for Iraq Airstrikes,” DoD Buzz, 22 Aug 2014, available at

6. Washington Post, "Public strongly backs airstrikes against Islamic State," op. cit., available at

7. Mark Preston, "CNN poll finds majority of Americans alarmed by ISIS," op. cit., available at

8. Walter Russell Mead, "The Revenge of Geopolitics: Is the Neo-Isolationist Moment Already Over?" The American Interest, 08 Apr 2014, available at; and, William Galston, "The Economic Roots of American Retreat," Wall Street Journal, 18 Mar 2014, available at

9. Galston, op. cit.

10. For a majority of Americans, the nation’s economic woes are directly experienced as relatively high rates of un- and under-employment, stagnant income growth, increased job insecurity, personal debt burden, loss of home and stock equity, and rising energy, medical, and education costs. These in turn may be the result of a variety of larger-scale issues, such as: increased global economic competition, trade and current accounts imbalances, slower GDP growth, inadequate or inefficient public investment, decaying national infrastructure, growing income inequality, and aggregate national public and private debt. Some of these issues are explored in:

        Alan Auerbach and William Gale, "Forgotten But Not Gone: The Long-Term Fiscal Imbalance," Brookings Institution, Mar 2014, available at

        Homeland Security News Wire, "Crumbling infrastructure hobbles U.S. competitiveness," 10 Oct 2013, available at

        Drew DeSilver, "At 42 months and counting, current job ‘recovery' is slowest since Truman was president,” Pew Research Center, 25 Sep 2013, available at

        The Globalist, "How Competitive Is the U.S.?" 19 Aug 2013, available at

        PricewaterhouseCoopers, “World in 2050: The BRICs and beyond – prospects, challenges and opportunities,” Jan 2013, available at

        George Packer, “The Broken Contract: Inequality and American Decline,” Foreign Affairs, Nov/Dec 2011, available at

        Congressional Budget Office, "Trends in the Distribution of Household Income Between 1979 and 2007," Oct 2011, available at

11. The change in the public’s ranking of national priorities is apparent in the polling data compiled by in its section on “Problems and Priorities,” available at Also indicative is the change in the relative ranking of “deficit spending” and “terrorism” as issues of public concerns, reported in Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, "Public Priorities: Deficit Rising, Terrorism Slipping,” 23 Jan 2012, available at

12. Mead, op. cit.

13. AFP, “Hagel warns Americans of the risks of isolationism,” op. cit.

14. Increased public concern about Russia, China, and extremism:

        Mark Preston, "CNN poll finds majority of Americans alarmed by ISIS," op. cit.

        Howard LaFranchi, “Iraq crisis: Republicans see ISIS as threat to America, Dems not as much,” Christian Science Monitor, 30 Jun 2014, available at

        Matt Berman, “Americans are not happy with Obama about Iraq, but they don’t really know what to do,” National Journal, 24 Jun 2014, available at

        Marjorie Connelly, “Poll Shows No Consensus in U.S. for Helping in Iraq,” New York Times, 23 Jun 2014, available at

        Andrew Dugan, "Americans View China Mostly Unfavorably," Gallup, 20 Feb 2014, available at

        Art Swift, "Americans' Views of Russia, Putin Are Worst in Years," Gallup, 13 Feb 2014, available at

        "Russia,", available at

        "China,", available at

15. “Get tough” rhetoric on ISIS, Syria, and Russia:

        John McCain and Lindsey Graham, "Stop Dithering, Confront ISIS," New York Times, 30 August 2014, available at

        ABC News, "Chuck Hagel: ISIS Is an 'Imminent Threat' to U.S. Interests," 22 August 2014, available at

        Spencer Ackerman, "‘Apocalyptic' Isis beyond anything we've seen, say U.S. defence chiefs," The Guardian, 22 August 2014, available at

        Kristina Wong, "ISIS now ‘full-blown army,' officials warn," The Hill, 23 July 2014, available at

        Rory Carrol, “Obama: ISIS could pose a 'medium and long-term threat' to the U.S.,” The Guardian, 22 Jun 2014, available at

        Ryan Crocker, “It’s not too late to re-engage with Iraq,” Washington Post, 19 Jun 2014, available at

        Anne-marie Slaughter, "Don't Fight in Iraq and Ignore Syria," New York Times, 17 June 2014, available at’t-fight-in-iraq-and-ignore-syria.html?_r=1

        Carl Schreck, "U.S. Takes Off The Gloves In Rhetorical Rumble With Russia," RFE/RL, 15 Apr 2014, available at

        Robert M. Gates, "Putin's Challenge to the West: Russia has thrown down a gauntlet that is not limited to Crimea or even Ukraine," Wall Street Journal, 25 Mar 2014, available at

16. U.S. economic conditions:

        The Economist, “Recessions compared,” 29 Jul 2011, available at

        Josh Bivens, Andrew Fieldhouse, and Heidi Shierholz, “From Free-fall to Stagnation,” Economic Policy Institute, 14 Feb 2013, available at

        Steven Mufson, "The dollar, less almighty: Big investors see possible long-term currency weakness," 21 Apr 2011, available at

        Michael Spence and Sandile Hlatshwayo, “The Evolving Structure of the American Economy and the Employment Challenge,” Council on Foreign Relations, Mar 2011, available at

17. Sebastián Laffaye, et. al., “Changes in the global economic power structure: towards a multipolar world?” Argentine Journal of International Economics, Feb 2013, available at; Uri Dadush and Bennett Stancil, “The World Order in 2050,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Apr 2010, available at

18. A “new normal” economy?

        Jared Bernstein, “Beware the New Normal,” New York Times, 23 Dec 2013, available at

        Bureau of Labor Statistics, “The U.S. economy to 2022: settling into a new normal,” Monthly Labor Review, Dec 2013, available at

        Paul Krugman, “A Permanent Slump?” New York Times, 17 Nov 2013, available at

        Mohamed A. El-Erian, "Ryan and the next 'new normal'," Washington Post, 13 Aug 2012, available at

        Paul Krugman, “Defining Prosperity Down,” New York Times, 2 Aug 2010, available at

        Mohamed El-Erian, “A New Normal,” Secular Outlook, May 2009, available at

19. A 1996 poll by the Program on International Policy Attitudes found 71.5% of respondents agreeing that it is better to err on the side of having “too much” defense rather than “too little” because the consequences of underestimating are too dire. However, when asked about spending without a reference to dire consequences, a strong plurality of respondents felt that the United States was spending more than needed. Steven Kull, “Americans on Defense Spending - A Study of U.S. Public Attitudes: Report of Findings,” Program on Intl Policy Attitudes, 19 Jan 1996, available at

20. Congressional Budget Office, “Estimated Impact of Automatic Budget Enforcement Procedures Specified in the Budget Control Act,” 12 Sep 2011, available at; and, U.S. Government Printing Office, “Budget Control Act of 2011,” 5 Jan 2011, available at

21. Human cost of Iraq and Afghanistan wars:

        Hannah Fischer, "U.S. Military Casualty Statistics: Operation New Dawn, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation Enduring Freedom," Congressional Research Service, 19 Feb 2014, available at

        Cost of War project, Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University,

        Jamie Reno, "VA Stops Releasing Data On Injured Vets As Total Reaches Grim Milestone," International Business Times, 1 Nov 2013, available at

        Marilynn Marione, "Iraq, Afghanistan Veterans Filing For Disability Benefits At Historic Rate," Associated Press, 27 May 2012, available at

        Dan Froomkin, "How Many U.S. Soldiers Were Wounded in Iraq? Guess Again,” Huffington Post, 30 Dec 2011, available at

        David Wood, "Wounded Iraq, Afghanistan Troops Increase As Pentagon Says Afghan War Will Continue," Huffington Post, 10 Dec 2012, available at

22. Susan Page, “Poll: Grim assessment of wars in Iraq, Afghanistan,” USA Today, 31 Jan 2014, available at; and, Pew Research Center, “More Now See Failure than Success in Iraq, Afghanistan,” 30 Jan 2014, available at

23. The nine significant military operations concerned conflicts in Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Haiti, Iraq, Kosovo, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. The U.S. military and/or U.S. arms transfers have also played a supporting role in conflicts or confrontations in Georgia, Israel-Palestine, Korea, Lebanon, Persian Gulf (Iran), Philippines, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, and several African nations.

24. Sarah Wolfe, "A new poll says these nations are the top 4 threats to world peace. Guess who's number one?" Global Post, 3 Jan 2014, available at; WIN/Gallup International, “End of Year 2013,” 30 Dec 2013, available at; and, Pew Center, "Global Opinion of Obama Slips,” International Policies Faulted, 13 Jun 2012, available at

25. Lydia Saad, "Half in U.S. Anticipate More Terrorism Soon," Gallup, 26 Apr 2013, available at; and, Institute for Economics & Peace, "2012 Global Terrorism Index, 2012," available at

26. Mark Landler and Megan Thee-Brenan, "Survey Reveals Scant Backing for Syria Strike," New York Times, 9 Sep 2013, available at

27. Gauging U.S. globalization:

        KOF (Swiss Economic Institute), “Index of Globalization, 2014,” available at

        Pankaj Ghemawat and Steven A. Altman, “DHL Global Connectedness Index 2012,” DHL Express, 12 Nov 2012, available at

        Brad Amburn, “Globalization Index 2007, Foreign Policy,” 11 Oct 2007, available at

28. J. Michael Donnelly and Brock R. Williams, “U.S. International Trade: Trends and Forecasts,” Congressional Research Service, 19 Oct 2012, available at; William H. Cooper and Rebecca M. Nelson, “U.S. Foreign Trade in Services: Trends and U.S. Policy Challenges,” Congressional Research Service, 15 May 2014, available at

29. James K. Jackson, “U.S. Direct Investment Abroad: Trends and Current Issues,” Congressional Research Service, 11 Dec 2013, available at

30. Michael Cohen, "America stands accused of retreat from its global duties. Nonsense," The Observer, 12 Apr 2014, available at

31. Central Intelligence Agency, "United States,” World Factbook, updated 20 Jun 2014, available at Also see, “Appendix B: International Organizations and Groups,” World Factbook,

32. U.S. Department of State, “Treaties in Force,” 1 Jan 2013, available at

33. Curt Tarnoff and Marian Leonardo Lawson, "Foreign Aid: An Introduction to U.S. Programs and Policy,” Congressional Research Service, 20 Apr 2012, available at

34. The 45 nations include 27 non-US members of NATO and 15 nations identified as a Major Non-NATO Ally in accord with Section 2350a(f)(2) of Title 10 of the U.S. Code: Afghanistan, Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, New Zealand, Pakistan, Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand. Several of these also enjoy mutual defense pacts with the United States: Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Philippines, and South Korea. Three other nations enjoy exceptionally close, substantial, and long-standing military security relationships with the United States: Colombia, Saudi Arabia, and Taiwan. U.S. defense treaties are reviewed at U.S. Department of State, “U.S. Collective Defense Arrangements,”

The following resources give background on the broader range of security partnerships:

        Center for International Policy, Security Assistance Monitor, available at

        Kenneth Martin, Defense Institute of Security Assistance Management, "Fiscal Year 2013 Security Cooperation Legislation," The DISAM Annual, Aug 2013, available at

        U.S. Dept. of State, “Foreign Military Training and DoD Engagement Activities of Interest,” Annual Reports, available at

Some of the conceptual and planning issues associated with the partnership concept are explored in Catherine Dale, “In Brief: Clarifying the Concept of Partnership in National Security,” Congressional Research Service, 4 May 2012, available at

35. Quarterly data on the location of U.S. active-duty military personnel is available at Defense Manpower Data Center, “Active Duty Military Personnel by Service by Region/Country,” However, recent quarterly reports do not take accurate account of those personnel deployed in contingency operations, including those deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, and South Korea. An accounting of troops deployed in South Korea is provided by Mark E. Manyin, et. al., "US-South Korea Relation," Congressional Research Service, 12 Feb 2014, available at Historical deployments for Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom are surveyed by Amy Belasco, “Troop Levels in the Afghan and Iraq Wars, FY2001-FY2012: Cost and Other Potential Issues,” Congressional Research Service, 2 Jul 2009, available at Estimate for non-US military deployments is derived from the country sections of International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2012 (London: IISS, 2012).

36. Defense Manpower Data Center, ibid.

37. Office of the Deputy under Secretary of Defense (Installations & Environment), “Base Structure Report FY 2013 Baseline,” Department of Defense, 30 Sep 2012, available at

38. This count considers the United States “involved” in a conflict if U.S. agencies are conducting combat or deterrence operations or if U.S. military personnel are providing vital operational or logistics support for allied state or non-state combatant or constabulary forces. The “more than 15 conflicts” include those in Afghanistan, Columbia, Iraq, Israel-Palestine, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Pakistan, the Philippines, the Korean peninsula, and Yemen as well as operations against Al-Qaida emulators and other militant groups that stretch across several central African countries. (President Obama’s 12 June 2014 War Powers memo mentions deployments to Niger, Chad, and Uganda.) The ongoing peace operations involving U.S. troops include KFOR (Kosovo) and MFO (Egypt).

        Barack Obama, “Letter from the President - War Powers Resolution,” 12 Jun 2014, available at

        Barbara Salazar Torreon, “Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2013,” Congressional Research Service, 30 Aug 2013, available at

        Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Training Elite Antiterror Troops in Four African Nations,” New York Times, 26 May 2014, available at

        Nancy A. Youssef, “U.S. troops deploy near Libya as safety concerns rise,” Seattle Times, 16 May 2014, available at

        Nick Turse, “The Secret U.S. Military Operation Underway in Africa,” Mother Jones, 15 May 2014, available at

        Helene Cooper, “More U.S. Troops to Aid Uganda Search for Kony,” New York Times, 24 Mar 2014, available at

        Abraham Chaibi, “U.S. Aid to Lebanon, a Delicate Balance,” International Policy Digest, 10 Feb 2014, available at

        Craig Whitlock, “U.S. to airlift African troops to Central African Republic,” Washington Post, 9 Dec 2013, available at

        Rajiv Chandrasekaran, “Kony 2013: U.S. quietly intensifies effort to help African troops capture infamous warlord,” Washington Post, 28 Oct 2013, available at

        James Kitfield, “5 Takeaways from the U.S. Special Ops Raids in Somalia and Libya,” 8 Oct 2013, available at

        Richard Javad Heydarian, “More U.S. boot’s on Philippine soil,” Asia Times, 9 Sep 2013, available at

        Craig Whitlock, “U.S. expands secret intelligence operations in Africa,” Washington Post, 13 Jun 2012, available at

        Sudarsan Raghavan, “In Africa, U.S. troops moving slowly against Joseph Kony and his militia,” Washington Post, 16 Apr 2012, available at

39. Time-series polls of U.S. public opinion on global engagement:

        Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, “America's Place in the World 2013,” 3 Dec 2013, available at

        Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Foreign Policy in the Age of Retrenchment, 15 Sep 2014, available at

        Chicago Council, "Foreign Policy in the New Millennium," 10 Sep 2012, available at

        Chicago Council, "Constrained Internationalism: Adapting to New Realities," 16 Sep 2010, available at

40. Pew, “America's Place in the World 2013,” ibid., p. 5.

41. Pew, op. cit., p. 20.

42. Carrie Dann, “Forty-seven Percent Say U.S. Should Reduce Role in World Affairs,” NBC News, 30 Apr 2014, available at The survey, conducted by Hart Research Associates/Public Opinion Strategies, is available at Also see: Washington Post, editorial, “America's global role deserves better support from Obama,” 3 May 2014, available at

43. Public rankings of national priorities in various polls can be found at in its section on “Problems and Priorities,” available at

44., “Problems and Priorities,” ibid., pp. 6-7. Also see Pew Research Center, "Public Priorities: Deficit Rising, Terrorism Slipping,” op. cit.

45. Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Foreign Policy in the Age of Retrenchment, 15 Sep 2014, pp. 6-7, available at

46. Chicago Council on Global Affairs, "Constrained Internationalism: Adapting to New Realities," 16 Sep 2010, available at

47. Joshua D. Kertzer, “Making Sense of Isolationism: Foreign Policy Mood as a Multilevel Phenomenon,” The Journal of Politics, Jan 2013; and, Ole R. Holsti, “A Return to Isolationism and Unilateralism? American Public Opinion, Pre- and Post-September 11,” in Holsti, Making American Foreign Policy (New York: Routledge, 2006).

48. Although a decline in cooperative spirit is apparent in the recent Pew Center poll, majorities still prefer international cooperation on a broad range of policy issues (PRC 2013, p. 21). The 2012 Chicago Council survey reviews the U.S. public’s preference for diplomatic approaches to conflict management across a variety of scenarios (CCGA 2012, pp. 20-24). The Council survey also finds the public to prefer that U.S. military interventions occur as part of a UN or allied operation, not unilaterally (CCGA 2012, Figure 1.12, p. 19).

49. The 2013 Pew Center survey shows strong public support for greater involvement in the global economy, although concerns about job loss and immigration also score high (PRC 2013, p.23-26). Indeed, in the 2013 survey, respondents ranked “protect American jobs” as their second highest foreign policy priority – below protecting the nation from terrorism, but more important than preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction (PRC 2013, p. 10).

50. Chicago Council, 10 Sep 2012, op. cit., p. 11.

51. Pew Center, 3 Dec 2013, op. cit., p. 20.

52. Caroline Smith and James M. Lindsay, “Rally 'Round the Flag: Opinion in the United States before and after the Iraq War,” Brookings Institution, Summer 2003, available at; and, Lydia Saad, “Iraq War Triggers Major Rally Effect,” Gallup, 25 Mar 2003, available at

53. Chicago Council, 2012, op. cit., p.17.

54. These conclusions are also generally supported by a survey of polling on the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War and the Somalia and Bosnia interventions. Andrew Kohut and Robert C. Toth, “Arms and the People,” Foreign Affairs, Nov/Dec 1994.

55. Chicago Council, 2012, op. cit., p.17.

56. This conclusion is also supported by the 1994 Koghut and Toth survey, “Arms and the People,” op. cit.

57. Pew Research Center, “America's Place in the World 2009,” 3 Dec 2009, p. 14, available at

58. Pew Research Center, 3 Dec 2013, op. cit., p. 19.

59. Jim Lobe, "U.S. Public-Elite Disconnect Emerges Over Syria," Inter Press Service, 14 Sep 2013, available at; Benjamin H. Friedman, “Americans Are Less Hawkish than Their Leaders,” The Skeptics blog, National Interest, 15 May 2012, available at

60. Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, “Global Views 2004: American Public Opinion and Foreign Policy,” 2004, page 29, Figure 2-7, “Support for Use of Troops in Various Circumstances,” available at

61. By contrast, the “last resort” principle treats war itself as an instrument of mass destruction with unpredictable costs and repercussions, as the 2003-2012 Iraq war illustrates. In this view, the resort to war is reserved for dire circumstances and defensive ends after other options have been tried and exhausted. Of course, the last resort principle allows for immediate defensive action against attacks as outlined in Chapter VII, Article 51 of the UN Charter. Michael Wines, "Bush, in West Point Valedictory, Offers Principles on Use of Force," New York Times, 6 Jan 1993, available at; and, George Bush, “Remarks at the United States Military Academy in West Point,” New York, 5 Jan 1993, available at

62. Post-Cold War U.S. norms governing the use of force:

        John F. Troxell, “Military Power and the Use of Force,” chapter 17 in J. Boone Bartholomees, Jr., ed., U.S. Army War College Guide to National Security Policy and Strategy (Carlisle PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 4th Edition, Jun 2012). See especially Figure 17-4. “Guidelines for the Use of Force,” p. 227. Available at

        Trevor McCrisken, “Ten years on: Obama’s war on terrorism in rhetoric and practice,” International Affairs, Jul 2011, available at

        Michael Hirsh, “Defining Down War: Obama is already adept at going to war without saying so, but the team of Panetta and Petraeus is likely to turn this age-old deception into an art form,” National Journal, 1 Jul 2011, available at

        Andrew J. Bacevich, Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War (New York Metropolitan Books, Mar 2011).

        Peter Feaver, “Obama’s National Security Strategy: real change or just ‘Bush Lite?',” Shadow Government blog, Foreign Policy, 27 May 2010, available at

        Harry van der Linden, “Barack Obama, Resort to Force, and U.S. Military Hegemony,” International Journal of Applied Philosophy 23:1, Spring 2009, available at

        Carl Conetta, “Forceful Engagement: Rethinking the Role of Military Power in U.S. Global Policy,” Project on Defense Alternatives, Dec 2008, available at

        Allen S. Weiner, “The Use of Force and Contemporary Security Threats: Old Medicine for New Ills?” Stanford Law Review, Nov 2006, available at

        Mel Goodman, “The Militarization of U.S. Foreign Policy,” Foreign Policy in Focus, 30 Sep 2005, available at

        Robert Jervis, “Understanding the Bush Doctrine,” Political Science Quarterly, Fall 2003.

        Jonathan Kirshner, et. al., “Iraq and Beyond: The New U.S. National Security Strategy,” Occasional Paper #27, Cornell University, Peace Studies Program, Jan 2003, available at

        Jim Mokhiber, "The Uses of Military Force," Give War a Chance, PBS Frontline, 11 May 1999, available at

        Foreign Affairs, editors note, “Springtime for Interventionism,” Nov/Dec 1994.

63. Benjamin I. Page, Robert Y. Shapiro, The Rational Public: Fifty Years of Trends in Americans' Policy Preferences (University of Chicago Press, 27 May 2010); Stanley Feldman, “Structure and Consistency in Public Opinion: the Role of Core Beliefs and Values,” American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 32, No. 2, May 1988; and, Jon Hurwitz and Mark Peffley, “How Are Foreign Policy Attitudes Structured? A Hierarchical Model,” American Political Science Review, Vol. 81, No. 4, Dec 1987.

64. Alvin Richman, "Categorically Different: Americans and Their Leaders on Foreign Policy Objectives," Public Opinion Pros, Jun 2005, available at Also see, Friedman, “Americans Are Less Hawkish than Their Leaders,” op. cit.

65. Steven Kull, et. al., "Competing Budget Priorities: The Public, the House, the White House," Program for Public Consultation and Knowledge Networks, 3 Mar 2011, available at; and, Program on International Policy Attitudes, "American Public Vastly Overestimates Amount of U.S. Foreign Aid," 29 Nov 2010, available at

66. Barry Posen and Andrew Ross, "Competing Visions for U.S. Grand Strategy," International Security, Winter 1996/1997, available at

67. Strategy debates and alternatives:

        Bruce W. Jentleson, “Strategic Recalibration: Framework for a 21st-Century National Security Strategy,” The Washington Quarterly, Spring 2014, available at

        Campbell Craig, et. al., “Debating American Engagement: The Future of U.S. Grand Strategy,” International Security, Fall 2013.

        Stephen M. Walt, "More or less: The debate on U.S. grand strategy," Foreign Policy, 2 Jan 2013, available at

        Michèle A. Flournoy and Shawn Brimley, eds., “Finding Our Way: Debating American Grand Strategy,” 11 Jun 2008, available at

        Elbridge Colby, “Grand Strategy: Contending Contemporary Analyst Views and Implications for the U.S. Navy,” Center for Naval Analysis, Nov 2011, available at

        Michael E. Brown, et. al., eds., America's Strategic Choices: Revised Edition (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2000).

        Janne E. Nolan, Global engagement: Cooperation and Security in the 21st Century (Washington DC: Brookings Institution, 1994).

68. Few among the general public would know or subscribe to the type of formal international relations theories or strategic perspectives that preoccupy political scientists and security analysts. However, individuals’ opinions on foreign policy can reflect coherent perspectives that are rooted in core beliefs and values. In this sense, individuals’ policy beliefs and opinions are “structured,” if not systematic.

Across an entire population, individuals’ perspectives on policy issues tend to cluster into a limited number of distinct opinion cohorts – population subgroups whose members share a common disposition. This clustering is evident in close analysis of extensive recursive opinion polls like those conducted by the Pew Center and Chicago Council. The various opinion clusters represented in a population may correspond roughly to the more formal strategic theories or perspectives debated by policy analysts and leaders.

The different opinion groups can be distinguished from each other in terms of how they differently mix a set of basic policy dispositions, such as: isolationism vs. engagement, unilateralism vs. multilateralism, altruism vs. narrow national interest, and preference for military vs. non-military forms of engagement. One analyst (Wittkopf, 1986) has identified four opinion cohorts among the American public – isolationists, internationalists, hardliners, and accommodationists – although there are other and more complex typologies as well.

Different opinion cohorts sometimes agree in their assessments of a specific event or policy option. Also, individuals can migrate from one cohort to another over time, and new generations of Americans distribute differently among cohorts. These variations mean that the relative size of cohorts can change. Dramatic changes in the strategic environment can accelerate such realignments.

The division of populations into opinion cohorts applies to both the general public and to elites. How elites and the general public proportion themselves among opinion cohorts may differ markedly, however. And this is one way to represent the elite-public gap on foreign policy.

        Dukhong Kim, “Beliefs in Foreign Policy Goals and American Citizens’ Support for Foreign Aid,” European Journal of Economic and Political Studies, (1) 2013, available at

        Matthew A. Baum and Henry R. Nau, “Foreign Policy Worldviews and U.S. Standing in the World,” prepared for the annual convention of the American Political Science Association, New Orleans, Louisiana, 30 Aug 2012, available at

        Ole R. Holsti, “The Three-Headed Eagle: The United States and System Change,” in Holsti, Making American Foreign Policy (New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2006), Chapter 5, pp. 89-105.

        Alvin Richman, Eloise Malone and David B. Nolle, “Testing Foreign Policy Belief Structures of the American Public in the Post-Cold War Period,” Political Research Quarterly, Vol. 50, No. 4, Dec 1997.

        Jerel Rosati and John Creed, “Extending the Three- and Four-Headed Eagles: The Foreign Policy Orientations of American Elites during the 80s and 90s,” Political Psychology, Vol. 18, No. 3, Sep 1997.

        Eugene R. Wittkopf, "On the Foreign Policy Beliefs of the American People: A Critique and Some Evidence," International Studies Quarterly, Dec 1986.

69. Although the neoliberal and neoconservative variants of Primacy thinking diverge over how U.S. military dominance is best exercised, they share a fundamental premise: The national security of the United States requires that America act as the world’s leading power and that it maintain and exercise global military primacy. They also share a de facto sense of the minimum military capacity needed to effectively exercise primacy, apparent in the nation’s four Quadrennial Defense Reviews to date. The United States must maintain:

        A distinct margin of superiority over adversaries across the spectrum of conflict, including an incomparable edge in military technology,

        A defense establishment comprising more than 3.5 million active, reserve, civilian, and contract personnel with an annual baseline budget exceeding $500 billion (USD 2014),

        A routine overseas presence of 200,000 military personnel and a robust commitment to core military alliances (now including 40 nations) as well as security assistance partnerships with numerous other nations (now including more than 100),

        Capacities to simultaneously conduct many smaller-scale contingency operations worldwide as well as to surge hundreds of thousands of troops for two larger-scale campaigns (of limited duration) when needed.

Barry R. Posen, "Stability and Change in U.S. Grand Strategy," Orbis, Fall 2007, available at Also see: Carl Conetta, “Going for Broke: The Budgetary Consequences of Current U.S. Defense Strategy,” Project on Defense Alternatives Briefing Memo #52, 25 Oct 2011, available at; and, Barry Posen, "Command of the Commons: The Military Foundation of U.S. Hegemony," International Security, Summer 2003, available at

70. What to do with American primacy?

        Robert Jervis, “The Remaking of a Unipolar World,” Washington Quarterly, Summer 2006.

        Ashley J. Tellis, “Assessing America’s War on Terror: Confronting Insurgency, Cementing Primacy,” NBR Analysis, 2004, available at

        Thomas Donnelly, “What's Next? Preserving American Primacy, Institutionalizing Unipolarity,” American Enterprise Institute, May 2003, available at

        Josef Joffe, “Clinton’s World: Purpose, Policy, and Weltanschauung,” Washington Quarterly, Winter 2001.

        Richard N. Haass, “What to do with American Primacy,” Foreign Affairs, Sep/Oct 1999, available at

        Ronald Steel, Temptations of a Superpower (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, Mar 1996).

71. America as the “indispensable nation”:

        Jules Witcover, "Should we continue to be the indispensable nation?" Chicago Tribune, 28 Sep 2013, available at–tms--poltodayctnyq-a20130510-20130510_1_chemical-weapons-barack-obama-president-obama

        John A. Gans Jr., “American Exceptionalism and the Politics of Foreign Policy,” The Atlantic, Nov 2011, available at

        James Bowman, “Once Again, the Indispensable Nation,” The New Criterion, Arma Virumque blog, 29 Mar 2011, available at

        Mackubin T. Owens, “America’s Role in the World: Republican Empire and the Bush Doctrine,” Ashbrook Center, Ashland University, Apr 2006, available at

        Michael Mandelbaum, The Case For Goliath: How America Acts As The World's Government in the Twenty-first Century (New York City: Public Affairs, 2005).

        Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay, “American Empire, Not 'If' but 'What Kind',” New York Times, 10 May 2003, available at

        Stephen Peter Rosen, “An empire, if you can keep it,” National Interest, Spring 2003, available at

        Max Boot, “America's Destiny Is to Police the World,” Financial Times, 19 Feb 2003, available at

         Robert Kagan, "Benevolent Empire," Foreign Policy, Summer 1998, available at

        Steven Erlanger, "Albright Sees an Ambitious World Mission for United States," New York Times, 6 Jun 1997, available at

72. Joseph S. Nye Jr., “The Future of Power,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 5 Jun 2011, available at; Joseph Nye, “Limits of American Power,” Political Science Quarterly, Winter 2002-2003, available at

73. “Primacy” describes the pre-eminent global position of the United States and its armed forces. Sustaining primacy has been central to U.S. security strategy since the mid-1990s. Military primacy is just an enabler, however. The more fundamental challenge, as Richard Haass wrote in 1999, “is what to do with a surplus of power and the many and considerable advantages this surplus confers on the United States.” (Haass, “What to do with American Primacy,” op. cit.)

The real conceit of U.S. post-Cold War security strategy has been to use dominant military power to transform the strategic environment in ways that preclude the emergence of significant challenges to the United States, its allies, and its vision of world order. This entails using American military capacity to constrain the policy choices of emerging powers, patrol the global commons, and rectify non-complying states. These goals significantly exceed the traditional ones of simple defense, deterrence, and crisis response. Relative to earlier practice, the scope of military activism has widened while the threshold for using force has come down.

In a sense the Primacy strategy arrogates for the United States the role of global security manager. This accords with a leadership style that is hegemonic or, at times, unilateralist. As a strategy, it is relatively insensitive to cost, having been formulated during a time of financial exuberance and surplus budgets. It also is relatively insensitive to the prospect of “blowback” from military activism – the negative, inadvertent consequences of forceful action.

The contours, costs, and problems of the Primacy strategy are explored in:

        John J. Mearsheimer, “America Unhinged,” National Interest, 2 Jan 2014, available at

        Daniel W. Drezner, "Military Primacy Doesn't Pay (Nearly As Much As You Think)," International Security, Summer 2013.

        Andrew J. Bacevich, The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (New York: Oxford University Press, Apr 2013).

        Melvin Goodman, National Insecurity: the Cost of American Militarism (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 5 Mar 2013).

        Andrew J. Bacevich, Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War (New York Metropolitan Books, Mar 2011).

        David S. Mcdonough, “Beyond Primacy: Hegemony and ‘Security Addiction’ in U.S. Grand Strategy,” Orbis, Jan 2009.

        Carl Conetta, “Dissuading China and Fighting the ‘Long War’,” World Policy Journal, Jun 2006, available at

        Matthew J. Morgan, “American Empire and the American Military,” Armed Forces & Society, Jan 2006.

74. Visions of global transformation:

        Thomas PM Barnett, Blueprint for Action: A Future Worth Creating (New York City: Penguin, 2005).

        Thomas PM Barnett, The Pentagon's New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-first Century (New York City: GP Putnam & Sons, 2004).

        David Frum and Richard Perle, An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror (New York: Random House, Dec 2003).

        Gareth Evans and Mohamed Sahnoun, “The Responsibility to Protect,” Foreign Affairs, Nov/Dec 2002.

        International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect, “The Responsibility to Protect. Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty,” New York, Dec 2001, available at

        William Clinton, A National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement (Washington DC: The White House, Feb 1996), available at

        New York Times, “Excerpts From Pentagon's Plan: 'Prevent the Re-Emergence of a New Rival',” 8 Mar 1992, available at

        Patrick E. Tyler, “U.S. Strategy Plan Calls for Insuring No Rivals Develop,” New York Times, 8 Mar 1992, available at

        Barton Gellman, “Pentagon War Scenario Spotlights Russia; Study of Potential Threats Presumes U.S. Would Defend Lithuania,” Washington Post, 20 Feb 1992.

75. Richard W. Maass and Carla Norrlof, "The Profitability of Primacy," International Security, Spring 2014.

76. In 1992 Aerospace Daily reported Pentagon leadership expectations that Congress would compel a 50% reduction in defense spending by 1996. The projection was for a 1996 budget of $150 billion calculated in 1992 dollars. Expressed in 2015 USD this would have been approximately $260 billion. In fact, the 1996 budget was $409 billion (2015 USD). The post-Cold War low point came in 1998 with a budget of $395 billion. And the average annual Pentagon base budget for 1996-2014 was $487 billion – or 87% higher in real terms than industry predictions in the early 1990s. Spending on Overseas Contingencies Operations added another $1.7 trillion over the 1996-2014 period. Aerospace Daily, “Pentagon Budget Headed for $150 Billion – Half Current Level – By 1996," 6 Jan 1992.

77. “Full-spectrum dominance” was first codified as guidance for all of America’s armed services in the Joint Chiefs’ July 1996 “Joint Vision 2010" document. The idea was to exploit America’s edge in emerging military technologies to ensure qualitative superiority in all domains of warfare. Subsequently, this goal became central to the first Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), published in May 1997. It has remained a framework concept in every QDR since then. More recently, the concept has been renamed “full spectrum superiority” and described as “The cumulative effect of dominance in the air, land, maritime, and space domains and information environment (which includes cyberspace) that permits the conduct of joint operations without effective opposition or prohibitive interference is essential to joint force mission success.” Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication 3-0: Joint Operations, 11 Aug 2011, p. V-47. Also see: Jim Garamone, “Joint Vision 2020 Emphasizes Full-spectrum Dominance,” American Forces Press Service, 2 Jun 2000, available at

78. Post-cold war defense planning:

        Jeffrey D. Brake, “Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR): Background, Process, and Issues,” Congressional Research Service, 21 Jun 2001, available at

        Michele A Flournoy, ed., QDR 2001: Strategy-Driven Choices for America's Security (Washington DC: National Defense University, Apr 2001) available at

        Steven Metz, American Strategy: Issues and Alternatives for the Quadrennial Defense Review (Carlisle PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, Sep 2000), available at

        Jim Garamone, “Joint Vision 2020 Emphasizes Full-spectrum Dominance,” American Forces Press Service, 2 Jun 2000, available at

        Henry H. Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Vision 2020 (Washington DC: DoD, Jun 2000), available at

        David E. Johnson, “Wielding the Terrible Swift Sword: The American Military Paradigm and Civil-Military Relations,” McNair Paper 57, Jul 1997, available at

        Paul K. Davis, et. al., “Strategic Issues and Options for the Quadrennial Defense Review,” Rand, 1997, available at

        Zalmay M. Khalilzad and David A. Ochmanek, Strategic Appraisal 1997: Strategy and Defense Planning for the 21st Century (Santa Monica: Rand, 1997), available at

        Gen. John Shalikashvili, "Joint Vision 2010: America's Military Preparing for Tomorrow," Joint Forces Quarterly, Summer 1996, available at

        Paul Davis, New Challenges for Defense Planning: Rethinking How Much is Enough (Santa Monica: Rand, 1994), available at

79. Reluctant warriors:

        Stephanie Gaskell, “DOD brass has long urged caution on Syria,” PoliticoPro, 14 Jun 2013, available at

        Michael C. Desch, “Bush and the Generals,” Foreign Affairs, May/Jun 2007.

        Peter D. Feaver & Christopher Gelpi, “The Civil-Military Opinion Gap Over the Use of Force,” Chapter Two in Feaver and Gelphi, Choosing Your Battles: American Civil-Military Relations and the Use of Force (Princeton University Press, 2005).

        Thomas E. Ricks, “Some Top Military Brass Favor Status Quo in Iraq; Containment Seen Less Risky Than Attack,” Washington Post, 28 Jul 2002, available at

        Deborah Avant and James Lebovic, “U.S. Military Attitudes Toward Post-Cold War Missions,” Armed Forces & Society, Fall 2000.

        Richard Betts, Soldiers, Statesmen, and Cold War Crises (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991).

80. Colin Powell with Joseph Persico, My American Journey (New York: Random House, 1995).

81. Operational tempo and military readiness claims:

        Barrie Barber, “General discusses concerns about cuts; AF leader warns of 'hollow' force,” Dayton Daily News, 14 Jul 2012.

        Sam Fellman, “CNO: Stressed Fleet Can't Sustain Op Tempo,” Navy Times, 3 May 2012, available at

        Mackenzie Eaglen, “Standing at the Precipice: U.S. Military Readiness Set to Go Off a Cliff,” Daily Signal, 27 Jul 2011, available at

        Bill Hess, “Military Readiness: Armed Forces Overstretched, Tucson Panel Agrees,” The Herald, 16 Sep 2009, available at

        Niles Lathem, “GI Joe Needs Break as Asia Sabers Rattle: Downsized U.S. Military Stretched Thin,” New York Post, 23 Aug 1999, available at

        Herb Bateman, “Rebuilding Military Urgent And Expensive,” Sun Sentinel, 15 Apr 1999, available at

        Senator Strom Thurmond, “Military Readiness and the Defense Budget,” Congressional Record - Senate, V. 144, 28 Oct 1998, p. 27181.

82. Analysis and commentary on U.S. regional commands:

        Benjamin H. Friedman and Harvey M. Sapolsky, “Commentary: Shut Down the U.S. Combatant Commands Move Would Cut Redundancy, Aid Diplomacy,” 29 Sep 2013, available at

        James Fallows, “America's Warlords: Up close with the U.S. military regional commanders who run the world,” Washington Monthly, Mar 2003, available at

        Dana Priest, The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace with America's Military (New York City: WW Norton & Company, Feb 2003.

83. The goods and services purchased by DoD are estimated as equal to the procurement, research and development, operations and maintenance, and military construction budget categories minus DoD civilian pay. Military personnel pay and retirement benefits are also excluded. Constant dollar totals come from Table 6-9, “Department of Defense BA by Category” in Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller), National Defense Budget Estimates for FY 2014 (Washington DC: Department of Defense, May 2013), available at

84. Ronald R. Krebs and Jennifer K. Lobasz, “Fixing the Meaning of 9/11: Hegemony, Coercion, and the Road to War in Iraq,” Security Studies, Aug 2007; and, Chaim Kaufmann, “Threat Inflation and the Failure of the Marketplace of Ideas: The Selling of the Iraq War,” International Security, Summer 2004, available at

85. Elite and media influence on public opinion:

        James Golby, Kyle Dropp, Peter Feaver, “Listening to the Generals: How Military Advice Affects Public Support for the Use of Force,” Center for a New American Security, 4 Apr 2013, available at

        Tim Groeling and Matthew A. Baum, “Crossing the Water's Edge: Elite Rhetoric, Media Coverage, and the Rally-Round-the-Flag Phenomenon,” The Journal of Politics, Oct 2008.

        Krebs and Lobasz, “Fixing the Meaning of 9/11: Hegemony,” ibid.

        David Barstow, “Message Machine: Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon's Hidden Hand,” New York Times, 20 Apr 2008, available at

        Adam J. Berinsky, “Assuming the Costs of War: Events, Elites, and American Public Support for Military Conflict,” Journal of Politics, Nov 2007, available at

        Robert M. Entman, Projections of Power (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2004).

        Stuart N. Soroka, “Media, Public Opinion, and Foreign Policy,” Press/Politics 8(1), Winter 2003, available at

        Larry M. Bartels, “Politicians and the Press: Who Leads, Who Follows?” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, San Francisco, Sep 1996, available at

        Robert Entman, “How the Media Affects What People Think: An Information Processing Approach,” The Journal of Politics, May 1989.

        Benjamin I. Page, Robert Y. Shapiro and Glenn R. Dempsey, “What Moves Public Opinion?” The American Political Science Review, Vol. 81, No. 1, Mar 1987.

86. Background on issue framing:

        Dennis Chong & James N. Druckman, “A Theory of Framing and Opinion Formation in Competitive Elite Environments,” Journal of Communication, Mar 2007, available at

        Stephen D. Reese, “Framing public life: A bridging model for media research” in Reese, et. al., Framing Public Life: Perspectives on Media and our Understanding of the Social World (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2001), available at

        Vincent Price, David Tewksbury, and Elizabeth Powers, “Switching Trains of Thought: The Impact of News Frames on Readers' Cognitive Responses,” Communication Research, Oct 1997.

        Pamela Shoemaker and Stephen Reese, Mediating the Message: Theories of Influences on Mass Media Content (White Plains NY: Longman Publishers, 1996).

        James W. Tankard and Randy Sumpter, "The Spin Doctor: An Alternative Model of Public Relations," Public Relations Review, Spring 1994.

        Robert M. Entman, “Framing: Towards Clarification of a Fractured Paradigm,” Journal of Communication, Dec 1993.

87. Second World War metaphors as issue framing devices:

        Geoffrey Wheatcroft, "On the Use and Abuse of Munich," New Republic, 3 Dec 2013, available at

        Victor Ottati, et. al., "The Metaphorical Framing Model: Political Communication and Public Opinion" in Mark J. Landau, et. al., eds., The Power of Metaphor: Examining Its Influence on Social Life (Washington DC: American Psychological Association, 15 Nov 2013). Pre-publication version available at

        Robert Dallek, "The Tyranny of Metaphor," Foreign Policy, 12 Oct 2010, available at

        Fredrik Logevall and Kenneth Osgood, "The Ghost of Munich: America's Appeasement Complex," World Affairs, Jul/Aug 2010, available at

        Nehemia Geva and Douglas W. Kuberski, "Effects of Historical Analogies on Foreign Policy Decision Processes," paper prepared for the 64th Annual Conference of the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago, Illinois, 20-23 Apr 2006, available at

        Jeffrey Record, "Appeasement Reconsidered: Investigating the Mythology of the 1930s," U.S. Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute, Aug 2005, available at

        Jeffrey Record, "Perils Of Reasoning By Historical Analogy: Munich, Vietnam, And American Use Of Force Since 1945," Occasional Paper No. 4, Center for Strategy and Technology, Air War College, Air University, Mar 1998, available at

88. Second World War tropes in discourse on Syria and Ukraine:

        Rep. Trent Franks, “Prince Charles is right: Similarities between Putin and Hitler are uncanny,”, 23 May 2014, available at

        Michael B Kelley, “12 Prominent People Who Compared Putin To Hitler Circa 1938,” Business Insider, 22 May 2014, available at

        Paul Johnson, “Is Vladimir Putin Another Adolf Hitler?” Forbes, 5 May 2014, available at

        Walter Russell Mead, “Putin: The Mask Comes Off, But Will Anybody Care?” The American Interest, 15 Mar 2014, available at

        Michael Goodwin, “Obama has his Munich moment with Putin and Crimea,” NY Post, 15 Mar 2014, available at

        Philip Rucker, “Hillary Clinton says Putin’s actions are like ‘what Hitler did back in the ’30s’,” Washington Post, 5 Mar 2014, available at

        Andrew Kirell, “Harry Reid Likens Assad to Hitler,” Media-ite, 9 Sep 2013, available at

        BBC, “Syria: 'This is our Munich moment', says John Kerry,” 7 Sep 2013, available at

        Bruce Golding, “Assad is like Hitler: Kerry,” New York Post, 2 Sep 2013, available at

        Michael Hirsh, “On the Verge of Appeasement in Syria,” National Journal, 1 Sep 2013, available at

89. The uses of fear and uncertainty in security policy debates:

        Daniel Wirls, Irrational Security: The Politics of Defense from Reagan to Obama (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, Apr 2010).

        John Mueller, "Threat Exaggeration in the 21st Century," prepared for the Conference on the “United States in the Global System,” University of Delaware, 17-18 Apr 2009, available at

        A. Trevor Thrall and Jane K. Cramer, eds., American Foreign Policy and The Politics of Fear: Threat Inflation since 9/11 (New York: Routledge, 10 Jun 2009).

        Benjamin H. Friedman, "The Terrible ‘Ifs'," Regulation, Winter 2008, available at

        Benjamin H. Friedman and Harvey M. Sapolsky, "You Never Know(ism)," Breakthroughs, Spring 2006, available at

        Carl Conetta and Charles Knight, "Dueling with Uncertainty: the New Logic of American Military Planning," Feb 1998, available at

90. World Bank, “Military expenditure (% of GDP),” accessed 1 Jul 2014, available at

91. This estimate is based on the cost of transitioning from the U.S. armed forces posture circa 1998 to the one outlined in “Reasonable Defense: A Sustainable Approach to Securing the Nation,” which envisions a force comprising 1.15 million active-component personnel and permanent peacetime overseas deployments of no more than 115,000 personnel. The estimate also excludes the costs of the Iraq war and assumes a more focused approach to defeating the Bin Laden terrorist organization following the 11 Sep 2001 attacks. Total Pentagon base budget spending for 1998-2014 is assumed to be $7.1 trillion. Total Overseas Contingency Operations cost is assumed to be $400 billion. See: Carl Conetta, “Reasonable Defense: A Sustainable Approach to Securing the Nation,” PDA Briefing Report #21, 14 Nov 2012, available at

92. This assumes armed forces comprising just 500,000 active-component personnel and 500,000 reservists. The active-component would be almost three times the size of the British military. A force of this size would be able to sustain occasional overseas operations comprising 150,000 active and reserve personnel for a duration of 18 months. It would be “quasi”-isolationist in the sense that it would not routinely station large numbers of personnel overseas, nor routinely involve itself in conflicts that are only obliquely or peripherally related to its near-term security. Emphasizing ad hoc military coalitions as needed, its enduring military alliance relationships would be selective, few, and limited in terms of objectives. Clearly, this posture would be much less engaged than today’s – but still not truly isolationist.

93. Recent options for a smaller U.S. military with substantial global presence and reach:

        Barry M. Blechman, et. al. A New U.S. Defense Strategy for a New Era: Military Superiority, Agility, and Efficiency (Washington DC: Stimson Center, 2012), available at

        Carl Conetta, “Reasonable Defense,” op. cit.

        Benjamin H. Friedman and Christopher Preble, “Budgetary Savings from Military Restraint,” Cato Institute, Policy Analysis #667, 23 Sep 2010, available at

94. Gallup, “Military and National Defense polls,” Feb 2014, available at

95. Gallup polling has been supplemented by other sources for the mid-1970s and mid-1990s. These other sources posing similar questions include Pew Research Center, Time/CNN-Yankelovich Partners, and the General Social Survey (National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago). They are available by subscription at Polling the Nations,

96. A 2012 poll conducted by the Program for Public Consultation in association with the Stimson Center and the Center for Public Integrity tested the assertion that there is “a lot of waste” in national defense spending. A large majority of respondents found the proposition either very convincing (39%) or somewhat convincing (42%). See: R. Jeffrey Smith, “Public overwhelmingly supports large defense spending cuts to trim the deficit; Americans favor much deeper reductions at the Pentagon than their leaders,” Center for Public Integrity, 10 May 2012, available at

Sources on Pentagon waste and inefficiency:

        Sandra I. Erwin, “Hope and Despair in Government Procurement,” National Defense, Jul 2014, available at

        David Francis, “How the U.S. Lost Billions Over 9 Years in Iraq,” The Fiscal Times, 19 Jun 2014, available at

        Government Accountability Office, “Defense Efficiencies: Action Needed to Improve Evaluation of Initiatives,” Jan 2014, available at

        Scot J. Paltrow, “Behind the Pentagon’s doctored ledgers, a running tally of epic waste,” Reuters, 18 Nov 2013, available at

        Neil Gordon, “Inspector General Says ‘At Least’ $8 Billion Lost in Iraq, Project on Government Oversight, 8 Mar 2013, available at

        Government Accountability Office, “Defense Business Transformation: Improvements Made but Additional Steps Needed to Strengthen Strategic Planning and Assess Progress,” Feb 2013, available at

        Nathaniel H. Sledge Jr., “Pentagon Procurement Reforms Face Slim Chance of Success,” National Defense, September 2012, available at

        Mackenzie Weinger, “Report: $60B waste in Afghanistan, Iraq,” Politico, 31 Aug 2011, available at

        Asif A. Khan, “DoD Financial Management: Numerous Challenges Must Be Addressed to Improve Reliability of Financial Information,” Government Accountability Office, 27 Jul 2011, available at

        John Reed, “$46 Billion Worth of Cancelled Programs,” Defense Tech, 19 Jul 2011, available at

        Megan Scully, “The Pentagon Premium: Decades after the $640 toilet seat, the Defense Department hasn’t audited its own books; And it is still overpaying billions for things it doesn’t need,” National Journal, 14 Jul 2011, available at

        Christopher Drew, “Audit of Pentagon Spending Finds $70 Billion in Waste,” New York Times, 29 Mar 2011, available at

        J. Ronald Fox, et. al., Defense Acquisition Reform, 1960–2009: An Elusive Goal (Washington DC: Center of Military History, United States Army, 2011), available at

        Defense Business Board, “Reducing Overhead and Improving Business Operations: Initial Observations,” 22 Jul 2010, available at

        House Armed Services Committee Panel on Defense Acquisition Reform Findings and Recommendations (Washington DC: U.S. House of Representatives, 23 Mar 2010), available at

        Gene L. Dodaro, Acting Comptroller General of the United States, "Maximizing DoD's Untapped Potential to Improve Business Performance," DoD Performance Breakthrough Convention, Lansdowne VA, 14 Oct 2009, available at

        Winslow Wheeler and Lawrence Korb, Military Reform: An Uneven History and an Uncertain Future (Stanford University Press, Apr 2009).

        Winslow T. Wheeler, et. al., America's Defense Meltdown: Pentagon Reform for President Obama and the New Congress (Washington DC: Center for Defense Information, 2008), available at

        Government Accountability Office, “Trends in Operation and Maintenance Costs and Support Services Contracting,” May 2007, available at

        Kwai Chan, “Financial Management in the Department of Defense: No One is Accountable” (New York: Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, May 2006).

97. Matthew Baum and Tim Groeling, “Reality Asserts Itself: Public Opinion on Iraq and the Elasticity of Reality,” International Organization, Summer 2010, available at

98. Gallup, "Military and National Defense" polls, op. cit. See polling results for:

        “Do you think the United States is number one in the world militarily, or that it is one of several leading military powers?”

        “Do you feel that it's important for the United States to be number one in the world militarily, or that being number one is not that important, as long as the U.S. is among the leading military powers?"

99. Pew Center, “Public Sees U.S. Power Declining as Support for Global Engagement Slips,” 3 Dec 2013, available at; Pew Center, “America's Place in the World 2013,” op. cit., p. 22; and, Pew Research Center, “America's Place in the World 2009,” op. cit., p. 17.

100. A variety of perceptions may figure in the public’s belief that America is the world’s top military power. A 2010 Rasmussen Poll found that 58% of likely voters recognized that the United States spends more on defense than any other nation (although a 2012 poll by the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation found that 56% underestimated the extent of America’s spending margin.) Also, since 1989, conventional military contests between the United States and other nations have uniformly resulted in relatively quick U.S. victory with relatively few U.S. casualties.

Media depictions of the contemporary U.S. military tend to show it as incomparably well-trained and well-equipped (even if not especially successful in unconventional and complex operations). And no other nation’s military is depicted in the news media as being nearly as active globally as the U.S. military. This conclusion is based on a Lexis-Nexis search of mostly U.S. print media and broadcast transcripts covering eight randomly-chosen periods of three days each spread across the past 20 years. Military identifier phrases were matched with foreign deployment phrases and with country identifying phrases such as “U.S. Army” or “British troops.” Fifty-six percent of the more than 6000 media references mentioned the U.S. armed forces. The next most frequently mentioned armed forces were the British at 19%. Other members of the control group (France, India, Israel, and Russia) were mentioned less frequently.

        Program for Public Consultation, "Majority of Americans Willing to Make Defense Cuts," 10 May 2012, available at

        Rasmussen Reports, “Voters Recognize U.S. Military Spending Tops Other Countries,” 27 Nov 2010, available at

101. Chicago Council, "Foreign Policy in the New Millennium," op. cit., p. 16, Figure 2.6.

102. “Military superiority” is hard to usefully define and its import is unclear. There are various ways to measure military power – analytical and impressionistic, quantitative and qualitative, static and dynamic. All aim to give or convey some assurance about the outcome of hypothetical future contests or endeavors. This points to what should be the central concern in assessing the adequacy of armed forces: “mission” or “objective.” What is the military goal in question? Is it global transformation? Nation building? Or defense of a more finite sort? An unrealistic mission can undo any military force.

103. Program for Public Consultation, "Majority of Americans Willing to Make Defense Cuts," 10 May 2012, available at

104. Program for Public Consultation, "Majority of Americans Willing to Make Defense Cuts," ibid.

105. The role of institutional interests in policy formation:

        Michael J. Glennon, “National Security and Double Government,” Harvard National Security Journal, Vol. 5, Issue 1, 2014, available at

        Alan G. Whittaker, et. al., The National Security Policy Process: The National Security Council and Interagency System (Washington DC: National Defense University, 15 Aug 2011), available at

        Andrew Bacevich, “The Tyranny of Defense Inc.,” The Atlantic, Jan/Feb 2011, available at

        Winslow T. Wheeler, et. al., The Pentagon Labyrinth: 10 Short Essays to Help You Through It (Washington DC: Center for Defense Information, 2011), available at

        Daniel Wirls, “Military Policy as an Arena of Public Policy,” paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington DC, 1-3 Sep 2010, available at

        Daniel Wirls, Irrational Security: The Politics of Defense from Reagan to Obama (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, Apr 2010).

        Justin Logan, “The Domestic Bases of America’s Grand Strategy,” World Politics Review, 23 Mar 2010, available at

        Harvey Sapolsky, Eugene Gholz, and Caitlin Talmadge, U.S. Defense Politics: The Origins of Security Policy (New York: Routledge, Aug 2008).

        Gordon Adams, “The Politics of National Security Budgets,” Stanley Foundation Policy Analysis Brief, Feb 2007, available at

        Morton Halperin and Priscilla Clapp with Arnold Kanter, Bureaucratic Politics and Foreign Policy (Washington DC: Brookings Institution, 2006), available at

        William Hartung and M. Ciarrocca, "The Military-Industrial-Think Tank Complex: Corporate Think Tanks and the Doctrine of Aggressive Militarism." Multinational Monitor, Jan/Feb 2003, available at

        William D. Hartung, “Eisenhower's Warning the Military-Industrial Complex Forty Years Later,” World Policy Journal, Spring 2001.

        Kenneth Mayer and Anne M. Khademian, “Bringing Politics Back in: Defense Policy and the Theoretical Study of Institutions and Processes,” Public Administration Review, Mar 1996.

        Don M. Snider, “Strategy, Forces and Budgets: Dominant Influences in Executive Decision Making, Post-cold War, 1989-91,” Strategic Studies Institute, Feb 1993, available at

        Gregory Hooks, “The Rise of the Pentagon and U.S. State Building: The Defense Program as Industrial Policy,” American Journal of Sociology, Sep 1990.

        Barry Blechman, The Politics of National Security: Congress and U.S. Defense Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).

106. Steven Kull, “Americans on Defense Spending - A Study of U.S. Public Attitudes: Report of Findings,” Program on Intl Policy Attitudes, 19 Jan 1996, available at

107. Kull, “Americans on Defense Spending,” ibid.; Joshua D. Kertzer, “Making Sense of Isolationism: Foreign Policy Mood as a Multilevel Phenomenon,” The Journal of Politics, Jan 2013; Steven Kull, “Does the public favor defense budget cuts?” Center for Public Integrity, 26 Jan 2012, available at

108. See footnotes 85, 86, and 89.

109. “Hollow force” properly refers to a condition in which a military is substantially less capable than its apparent size and equipment level suggests. This is a condition worthy of grave concern. It is a precursor to military disaster, possibly with strategic consequences – as the Iraqi military has recently illustrated. Of course, armed forces routinely suffer less serious deficits in readiness and sustainability. There is a great and consequential difference between “hollow” and “less than perfect” or “less than desired” – a difference obscured by facile references to “hollow forces.” For a critical examination of the “hollow force” issue see footnote 133.

110. Adam J. Berinsky, “Assuming the Costs of War: Events, Elites, and American Public Support for Military Conflict,” Journal of Politics, Nov 2007, available at

111. Gallup, “Military and National Defense” polls, ibid. See polling results for “Do you, yourself feel that our national defense is stronger now than it needs to be, not strong enough, or about right at the present time?”

112. Gallup, “Military and National Defense” polls, ibid. See polling results for “Next we'd like to know how you feel about the state of the nation in each of the following areas. For each one, please say whether you are very satisfied, somewhat satisfied, somewhat dissatisfied, or very dissatisfied. If you don't have enough information about a particular subject to rate it, just say so. How about the nation's military strength and preparedness?"

113. The high baseline level of positive responses probably indicates that the question is partially accessing the public’s fundamental respect for the U.S. military as an institution. Clearly, the question carries a compound meaning.

114. Interestingly, defense budget authority for fiscal years 1993 and 2001 was almost identical in constant 2015 dollars – $459 billion versus $449 billion – although it was viewed as too high in the first case, too low in the second.

115. Federal Reserve Board, “The Challenge of Central Banking in a Democratic Society,” Remarks by Chairman Alan Greenspan at the Francis Boyer Lecture of the American Enterprise Institute, Washington DC, 5 Dec 1996, available at

116. Frank Gaffney Jr., op-ed, “The 4% solution,” Washington Times, 8 Aug 2000, available at

117. Berinsky, “Assuming the Costs of War,” op. cit.

118. Golby, et. al., “Listening to the Generals,” op. cit.

119. During the Reagan years, “spend less” sentiment out-polled “spend more” beginning in 1982. During the GW Bush presidency, “spend less” sentiment out-polled “spend more” beginning in Feb 2003.

120. Robert Kagan, “World of Problems,” Washington Post, 10 Apr 2000, available at

121. These were the 25 June 1996 truck bomb attack on the Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia; The 7 Aug 1998 truck bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; and, The 12 Oct 2000 attack on U.S. Navy destroyer USS Cole in Yemen.

122. 1990s concern about China as a potential regional competitor:

        Thomas Ricks, "For Pentagon, Asia Moving to Forefront; Shift Has Implications for Strategy, Forces, Weapons," Washington Post, 26 May 2000.

        Robert Kagan, op-ed, "How China Will Take Taiwan," Washington Post, 12 Mar 2000, available at

        New York Times, editorial, "Military Rumblings Over Taiwan," 3 Mar 2000, available at

        Robert Kaiser and Steven Mufson, "'Blue Team' Draws a Hard Line on Beijing; Action on Hill Reflects Informal Group's Clout," Washington Post, 22 Feb 2000, available at

        Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson, "House Votes for Stronger Military Ties to Taiwan; Administration Says Move Could Upset China Balance," Washington Post, 2 Feb 2000, available at

        Benjamin Schwarz, op-ed, "The U.S. Finds a New Boogeyman," Los Angeles Times, 8 Sep 1999, available at

        David E. Sanger and Erik Eckholm, "Will Beijing's Nuclear Arsenal Stay Small or Will It Mushroom?" New York Times, 15 Mar 1999, available at

        Richard Parker, "China's Navy Plan Could Pose a Threat," Philadelphia Inquirer, 8 Jun 1998, available at

        Michael D. Swaine, "Don't Demonize China; Rhetoric About Its Military Might Doesn't Reflect Reality," Washington Post, 18 May 1997, available at

        Keith B. Richburg, "Contain or Tame A Waking Giant? Region Sees China's Growth As a Double-Edged Sword," Washington Post, 17 Mar 1996.

123. A hawkish turn in the Carter administration:

        John D. Mini, “Conflict, Cooperation, and Congressional End-runs: The Defense Budget and Civil-military Relations in the Carter Administration, 1977-1978,” M.A. dissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2007, available at

        Richard Burt, "Army and Marines in Battle over Command of Rapid Deployment Force," New York Times, 9 Dec 1980.

        Bernard Gwertzman, “Role of the U.S. in Persian Gulf: How it Evolved,” New York Times, 12 Oct 1980.

        Don Oberdorfer, "Carter Would Fight for Persian Gulf; Seeks to Resume Draft Registration; Behind a New Policy: Oil, Crises and a Year of Deliberations; The Evolution Of a Decision," Washington Post, 24 Jan 1980.

124. National Security Archive, “Jimmy Carter's Controversial Nuclear Targeting Directive PD-59 Declassified,” National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 390, 14 Sep 2012, available at

125. Carl Conetta, Charles Knight, and Melissa Murphy, “Is the Iraq war sapping America’s military power? Cautionary data and perspectives,” Project on Defense Alternatives, 22 Oct 2004, available at See especially the graph, “A Measure of Stress to Active Component Army Personnel 1994-2004."

126. Military opposition to peace operations during the 1990s:

        Lyle Goldstein, “General John Shalikashvili and the Civil-Military Relations of Peacekeeping,” Armed Forces & Society, Spring 2000.

        Deborah D. Avant, “Are the reluctant warriors out of control? Why the U.S. military is averse to responding to post-cold war low-level threats,” Security Studies, Volume 6, Issue 2, 1996.

         Army Times, “Peace Missions Dull the Army's Combat Edge,” 6 Dec 1993.

        Charles J. Dunlap Jr., “The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012,” Parameters, Winter 1992-93, available at

127. Anti-isolationist discourse during the 1990s:

        David Ignatius, op-ed, “A Bad Week for Isolationists,” Washington Post, 17 Nov 1999.

        Benjamin Schwarz, commentary, “America's Role; New Isolationists, Old Fallacies,” Washington Post, 31 Oct 1999.

        New York Times, editorial, “Isolationism's Return,” 31 Oct 1999.

        William Kristol and Robert Kagan, op-ed, “The New Isolationist?” New York Times, 14 Oct 1996, available at

        Philip Dine, “Isolationism Is Road to Nowhere, U.S. Official Charges Here,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 7 Mar 1996.

        Charles Krauthammer, “Isolationist? Look Who's Talking,” Washington Post, 23 Jun 1995.

        Michael Zielenziger, “Albright Resists 'Isolationist Tide',” San Jose Mercury News, 12 Apr 1995.

        Thomas Friedman, “Dissing The World,” New York Times, 19 Feb 1995, available at

        Adrian Karatnycky, “America Turns Inward,” Washington Post, 22 Aug 1993.

128. Shortfalls of U.S. Army in Kosovo war:

        Congressional Research Service, “Kosovo and Macedonia: U.S. and Allied Military Operations,” 21 Jun 2001, available at

        Dana Priest, “Army's Apache Helicopter Rendered Impotent in Kosovo,” Washington Post, 29 Dec 1999, available at

        Sean D. Naylor, “Sidelined - How America Won A War Without The Army,” Army Times, 16 Aug 1999, available at

        Sean D. Naylor, “Commanders Fight To Keep Missiles, MLRS In Air War,” Army Times, 7 Jul 1999, available at

129. The surge in spending after 1981 did produce a military capable of quickly compelling Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait in 1991, although this goal figured not at all in the original impetus to boost spending and only a portion of the added funds were relevant to that war. By contrast, additional spending after 1998 did nothing to protect America from the 11 Sep 2001 attacks. Nor did it encourage a sensible prioritization among security objectives. As the United States entered the 21st century, defense leaders mistakenly de-emphasized the Al Qaeda threat while over-emphasizing China and Iraq. Finally, additional spending did not prepare America to effectively fight the types of wars into which national security leaders chose to stumble after 2001. In short, spending more on defense is no guarantee of true preparedness.

130. Pew Research Center, "Public Esteem for Military Still High," 11 Jul 2013, available at; and, Gallup, "Confidence in Institutions," Jun 2013, available at

131. Civil-military discord during Clinton presidency:

        Richard H. Kohn, "The Erosion of Civilian Control of the Military in The United States Today," Naval War College Review, Jun 2002, available at

        Air Force Magazine, “The Chiefs Speak Out,” Dec 2000, available at

        Michael Kilian, “Military Finds Flaws in Proposed Budget; $12 Billion Boost Deemed Inadequate,” Chicago Tribune, 21 Jan 1999, available at

        Rowan Scarborough, "Chiefs Do Not Salute Clinton Defense Plan," Washington Times, 6 Jan 1999.

        Andrew J. Bacevich, "Discord Still: Clinton and the Military," Washington Post, 3 Jan 1999.

        Mark Thompson, “The Generals Go Shopping; Clinton's weakness spells good news for weapons merchants,” Time, 5 Oct 1998.

        Richard H. Kohn, "Out of Control: the Crisis in Civil-military Relations," National Interest, Spring 1994, available at

132. Carter and Clinton military readiness controversies:

        Gary Anderson, “Urging alertness to dangers when military readiness falls by wayside,” The Washington Times, 8 Oct 2000.

        Tom Philpott, "Joint Chiefs Say Budget Surplus Will Result in a `Hollow Force'," Daily Press, 02 Oct 1998, available at

        Steven Komarow, “Military Leaders Insist Defense Budget must Expand,” USA Today, 30 Sep 1998.

        Frank L. Jones, "A ‘Hollow Army' Reappraised: President Carter, Defense Budgets, and the Politics of Military Readiness," Letort Paper, Strategic Studies Institute, Oct 2012, available at

133. The "hollow force" construct is a slippery one, subject to misrepresentation and partisan manipulation. Military readiness is a measure of how much of the armed forces’ latent or theoretical combat power can be brought to battle and sustained over time – but the measure is partly subjective. And it reflects conscious choices by military planners about the allocation of resources among personnel, modernization, and readiness accounts. Pentagon planners can choose, for instance, to retain force size or stick with scheduled equipment purchases at the expense of readiness. Finally, how much readiness is judged sufficient depends partly on wartime deployment plans, which can be more or less ambitious. In sum, “hollowness” is not simply a product of budget reductions. The military readiness problems during both the Carter and Clinton terms had more to do with how the Pentagon managed its resources than with budget shortages.

        Frank L. Jones, "A ‘Hollow Army' Reappraised: President Carter, Defense Budgets, and the Politics of Military Readiness," op. cit.

        Andrew Feickert and Stephen Daggett, "A Historical Perspective on "Hollow Forces," Congressional Research Service, 31 Jan 2012, available at

        Lawrence J. Korb, "Are U.S. Forces Unprepared and Underfunded?" Naval War College Review, Spring 2002, available at

        Carl Conetta and Charles Knight, “The Readiness Crisis of the U.S. Air Force: A Review and Diagnosis,” PDA Briefing Report #10, 22 Apr 1999, available at

        James Kitfield, "The Myth of the Hollow Force," Government Executive, 14 Dec 1998, available at

        Congressional Budget Office, "Paying for Military Readiness and Upkeep: Trends in Operation and Maintenance Spending," CBO Reports, Sep 1997, available at

        Richard K. Betts, Military Readiness: Concepts, Choices, Consequences (Washington DC: Brookings Institution, Mar 1995).

        William W. Kaufmann, "Hollow Forces? Current Issues of U.S. Military Readiness and Effectiveness," Brookings Review, 22 Sep 1994.

        Congressional Budget Office, "Trends in Selected Indicators Of Military Readiness, 1980 Through 1993," CBO Papers, Mar 1994, available at

134. President Carter’s first two defense budgets spent 3% more in real terms per troop on average than did Ford’s last two budgets. Similarly, Clinton’s first four defense budgets spent 4.7% more per person in uniform on average than did President Bush’s four defense budgets. Of course, spending more per person in uniform is no guarantee of increased combat readiness. The deciding factor is how these resources are used. See Table 7-5, “Department of Defense Manpower” and Table 6-8, “Department of Defense BA by Title” in Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller), National Defense Budget Estimates for FY 2014 (Washington DC: Department of Defense, May 2013), available at

135. Gore and Bush bid up defense spending during 2000 campaign:

        Steven Lee Myers, "A Call to Put the Budget Surplus to Use for the Military," New York Times, 28 Sep 2000, available at

        Christopher Hellman, "Recent Spending Questions by the Joint Chiefs of Staff Could Set off a Bidding War Between the Two Presidential Candidates," Knight Ridder, 13 Jul 2000.

        Ceci Connolly, "Gore Tells VFW of His Support Of Military; Democrat Pushes 'A Strong Defense,' Rebuts Bush Attack," Washington Post, 23 Aug 2000, available at

        Thomas Ricks and Roberto Suro, "Joint Chiefs Aim Big Budget Request at Next President," Washington Post, 5 Jun 2000.

        Associated Press, "Gore Makes Pitch to Veterans, Points out His Support for More Defense Spending," 12 Nov 1999.

136. George W. Bush and Al Gore, “The Second Gore-Bush Presidential Debate,” transcript, Commission on Presidential Debates, 11 Oct 2000, available at

137. The United States entered a significant recessionary period in July 1981, lasting 16 months. Unemployment rose from 7.2% to 10.8% and did not return to 7.2% until June 1984. Median Household Income had been in real decline since 1978, not recovering until 1985. The 2001 recession began in March with peak unemployment occurring in June 2003. In Sept. 2001 the unemployment level was 5%. It rose to 6.3% in June 2003 and did not recover to 5% until June 2005. It had been as low as 3.9% in 2000. There was a notable deterioration in Median Household Income, too. In real terms, it fell for five consecutive years after 1999. By 2004, it was down 4% in real terms from the 1999 level.

138. Decline in public support for Reagan foreign and security policy, 1980-1984:

        Daniel Yankelovich and John Doble, "Nuclear Weapons and the USSR: The Public Mood,” Foreign Affairs, Fall 1984.

        David Shribman, "Foreign Policy Costing Reagan Public Support," New York Times, 30 Sep 1983, available at

        Steven R. Weisman, "Aides Fear Reagan's Peaceful Image Is in Peril," New York Times, 6 Apr 1983, available at

        William E. Schmidt, "Poll Shows Lessening of Fear That U.S. Military Is Lagging," New York Times, 6 Feb 1983, available at

        Lou Cannon, "Reagan Stays A Rocky Course," Washington Post, 20 Jan 1983.

        Judith Miller, "72% in Poll Back Nuclear Halt If Soviet Union Doesn't Gain," New York Times, 30 May 1982, available at

        Steven V. Roberts, "A Majority in Poll Want U.S. to Stay out of Salvador War," New York Times, 21 Mar 1982, available at

        Adam Clymer, "Reagan Evoking Rising Concern, New Poll Shows,” New York Times, 19 Mar 1982, available at

        Henry Allen, "Fear of Frying; The Great Nuclear Phobia," Washington Post, 12 Nov 1981.

        Daniel Yankelovich and Larry Kaagan, "Assertive America," Foreign Affairs, Vol 59, No 3, 1980, available at

139. Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller), National Defense Budget Estimates for FY 2014 (Washington DC: Department of Defense, May 2013), Table 6-8, “Department of Defense BA by Title,” pp. 147-148, available at

140. Peter Baker, "How Obama Came to Plan for ‘Surge' in Afghanistan," New York Times, 5 Dec 2009, available at

141. Meghashyam Mali, “Poll: Public would blame GOP more than Obama if fiscal talks fail,” The Hill, 26 Nov 2012, available at; Reid J. Epstein, “Obama to troops: We're stronger, Defense cuts not my fault,” Politico, 31 Aug 2012, available at

142. Pentagon leaders resist budget rollback:

        Agence France-Presse, "Pentagon Chief Sounds Alarm Over U.S. Budget Cuts," 17 Nov 2013, available at

        David Francis, "The Pentagon Cries Wolf on Sequestration Pains," The Fiscal Times, 3 May 2013, available at

        Nick Simeone, "Navy, Marine Corps Leadership Warn About Sequester," American Forces Press Service, 16 Apr 2013, available at

        Michael Cohen, “America's military can handle anything ... except a budget cut,” Guardian, 20 Feb 2013, available at

        Claudette Roulo, "Chairman Outlines Sequestration's Dangers," American Forces Press Service, 13 Feb 2013, available at

        Callum Borchers, “Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warns against ‘disastrous’ spending cuts,” Boston Globe, 27 May 2012, available at

        Tim Mak and Charles Hoskinson, “Leon Panetta paints doomsday scenario,” Politico, 15 Nov 2011, available at

        Carlo Munoz, "Services On Empty, Can't Take More Cuts: Vice Chiefs," AOL Defense, 26 Jul 2011, available at

        David S. Cloud, "Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warns against defense cuts," Los Angeles Times, 4 Aug 2011, available at

        General Raymond T. Odierno, Chief of Staff, U.S. Army, "The Future of the Military Services and Consequences of Defense Sequestration," testimony before the Committee on Armed Services, U.S. House of Representatives, 2 Nov 2011, available at

143. William Hartung, "Get Rid of the Pentagon's Slush Fund," Huffington Post, 31 Mar 2014, available at; Michael Bruno, "Pentagon Budget Request Seeks Capability Over Capacity," Aviation Week, 4 Mar 2014, available at

144. The neoliberal practice of primacy in the Obama administration:

        Richard L. Kugler and Linton Wells II, Strategic Shift: Appraising Recent Changes in U.S. Defense Plans and Priorities (Washington DC: Center for Technology and National Security Policy, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, Jun 2013), available at

        Michèle Flournoy and Janine Davidson, “Obama's New Global Posture: The Logic of U.S. Foreign Deployments,” Foreign Affairs, Jul/Aug 2012.

        David Rohde, “The Obama Doctrine: How the president's drone war is backfiring,” Foreign Policy, 27 Feb 2012, available at

        Michael Hirsh, “Defining Down War,” op. cit., available at

        Trevor McCrisken, “Ten years on: Obama’s war on terrorism in rhetoric and practice,” op. cit., available at

        Peter Feaver, “Obama’s National Security Strategy: real change or just ‘Bush Lite?',” op. cit., available at

145. Mark Landler, “Obama Signals a Shift From Military Might to Diplomacy,” New York Times, 25 Nov 2013, available at

146. Barnett’s vision divides the world’s nations into two principal categories: the Core and the Non-integrating Gap. Core nations are distinguished by democratic governance, respect for human rights, open markets, rule of law, freedom of information, liberal social organization, and global integration. “Integration” involves openness to the principles and practices of government, economy, and social order that characterize nations belonging to the Core. Those states, movements, and organizations that oppose, resist, or disrupt progress toward these principles and practices are security concerns or they contribute to them.

        Thomas PM Barnett, Blueprint for Action: A Future Worth Creating (New York City: Penguin, 2005).

        Thomas PM Barnett, The Pentagon's New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-first Century (New York City: GP Putnam & Sons, 2004).

        Thomas PM Barnett, The Pentagon's New Map, Esquire, 1 Mar 2003, available at

147. U.S. special operations deployments and security force assistance:

        James Kennedy, “U.S. Foreign Assistance: More Guns than Butter,” Foreign Policy in Focus, 4 Mar 2014, available at

        Nick Turse, “America’s Secret War in 134 Countries,” Huffington Post, 16 Jan 2014, available at

        Linda Robinson, “The Future of U.S. Special Operations Forces,” Council Special Report No. 66, Council on Foreign Relations, Apr 2013, available at

        Thomas K. Livingston, “Building the Capacity of Partner States Through Security Force Assistance,” Congressional Research Service, 5 May 2011, available at

        Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe, “U.S. 'secret war' expands globally as Special Operations forces take larger role,” Washington Post, 4 Jun 2010, available at

        Derek S. Reveron, “Weak States and Security Assistance,” National Defense University, PRISM, Jun 2010, available at

148. U.S. public opinion regarding armed drone use overseas:

        New York Times, “Americans' Views on the Issues,” 6 Jun 2013, available at

        NBC News, “Poll finds overwhelming support for drone strikes,” 5 Jun 2013, available at

        Bruce Drake, “Obama and drone strikes: Support but questions at home, opposition abroad,” Pew Research Center, 24 May 2013, available at

        Chris Cillizza, “The American public loves drones,” Washington Post, 6 Feb 2013, available at

        Pew, “America's Place in the World 2013,” 3 Dec 2012, op. cit., p. 31.

149. See at

150. Michael Hirsh, "Hillary Clinton Steps Away From Obama on Foreign Policy," National Journal, 17 Mar 2014, available at

151. Recent assertions of “hollow force” dangers:

        Loren Thompson, “Sequester's Legacy: How A Bad Budget Law Could Lose America's Next War,” Forbes, 2 Sep 2014, available at

        Bill Gertz, “Defense Panel: Obama Administration Defense Strategy ‘Dangerously’ Underfunded,” Washington Free Beacon, 31 Jul 2014, available at

        Sara Scorcher, "Security Insiders: Defense Budget Cuts Put the Military on a Dangerous Course," National Journal, 7 Apr 2014, available at

        Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., “Gen. Amos: Marines Can’t Fight Major War If Sequestered; Navy Short Carriers Too,” Breaking Defense, 16 Apr 2013, available at

        Tyrone C. Marshall Jr., “Kendall: Sequestration Will Make Hollow Force Inevitable,” American Forces Press Service, 7 Nov 2013, available at

        Lance Bacon, “Current funding makes hollow force 'inevitable,' 3-star says,” Army Times, 9 Oct 2013, available at

        Sam Fellman, “U.S. Navy Secretary: 'Hollow' Force Coming If Sequestration Goes Unchecked,” Defense News, 11 Sep 2013, available at

        James Jay Carafano, “Omens of a Hollow Military,” National Interest, 4 Sep 2013, available at

        Jeremy Herb, "Joint Chiefs warn budget issues could create `hollow force'," The Hill, 16 Jan 2013, available at

152. See footnote 88.

153. Linking “hollow force” trope with global instability:

        Sara Scorcher, "Security Insiders: Defense Budget Cuts Put the Military on a Dangerous Course," National Journal, 7 Apr 2014, available at

        Bill Gertz, "Dempsey: Threat of Conflict in Asia Increasing; U.S. Military decline hastens global instability," Washington Free Beacon, 5 Mar 2014, available at

        Drew MacKenzie and John Bachman, "Rumsfeld: U.S. Going Into Decline Due to 'Weakness' in Military,", 18 Feb 2014, available at

        Armed Forces Journal International, editorial, "The pit and the pendulum: Civil-military relations in an age of austerity," 1 May 2013, available at

        Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., “Gen. Amos: Marines Can’t Fight Major War If Sequestered; Navy Short Carriers Too,” Breaking Defense, 16 Apr 2013, available at

        Jeremy Herb, "Joint Chiefs warn budget issues could create `hollow force'," The Hill, 16 Jan 2013, available at

154. The American public supports diplomatic measures (including sanctions) with regard to the Syrian civil war and Ukrainian crisis, but not direct military action or assistance. With regard to the advance of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, a strong majority has supported air strikes – with a view to preventing ethnic cleansing and retaliating for the murder of Americans – while majorities oppose sending ground troops. Regarding defense spending, the balance between those who want less spending and those who support more has changed marginally since 2012: from 41% vs 24% to 37% vs 27%. Peter Moore, “Bipartisan support for Iraq air strikes,” Economist/YouGov, 12 August 2014, available at

155. Critical perspectives on ISIS in Iraq and Syria:

        Paul Pillar, “ISIS in Perspective,” National Interest, Sep-Oct 2014, available at

        Mark Thompson, “Putting the ISIS Threat in Perspective,” Time, 14 Sep 2014, available at

        Nick Gillespie, “Why We Shouldn't Be Scared of ISIS: Threat Inflation and Our Next Dumb War, The Daily Beast, 10 Sep 2014, available at

        Peter Beinart,” The Problem With Bombing the Islamic State in Syria, The Atlantic, 25 Aug 2014, available at

        Joshua Keating, “The Irony of the War on ISIS,” Slate, 21 Aug 2014, available at

        Marc Lynch, “Would arming Syria’s rebels have stopped the Islamic State? Washington Post, 11 Aug 2014, available at

156. A tepid economic recovery:

        Tom Raum, “White House: Jobless Rate Won't Fall To Pre-Recession Levels Until 2017,” Associated Press, 4 Mar 2014, available at

        Econintersect Newsletter, "Median Household Income Again Statistically Unchanged in Dec 2013," 24 Jan 2014, available at

        Robert Pear, “Median Income Rises, but Is Still 6% Below Level at Start of Recession in '07,” New York Times, 21 Aug 2013, available at

        Doug Short Advisor Perspectives, "Real Median Household Income Fell 0.42% in Apr," 30 May 2014, available at

        Alfred Gottschalck, Marina Vornovytskyy, and Adam Smith, "Household Wealth and Debt in the USA: 2000 to 2011," Random Samplings, Official Blog of the U.S. Census Bureau, 21 Mar 2013, available at

        Brendan Greeley and Matthew Philips, "The GDP in 2017 Is Not Looking Good," Business Week, 6 Mar 2014, available at

        Tom Raum, "White House: Jobless Rate Won't Fall To Pre-Recession Levels Until 2017,"Associated Press, 4 Mar 2014, available at

        Annie Lowrey, "Household Incomes Remain Flat Despite Improving Economy,” New York Times, 17 Sep 2013, available at

        Neil Irwin, "The typical American family makes less than it did in 1989," Wonk Blog, 17 Sep 2013, available at

        Peter Coy, "American Families Are Poorer Than in 1989," Business Week, 12 Jun 2012, available at

        David Sicilia, “A brief history of U.S. unemployment,” Washington Post, 4 Nov 2011, available at

157. Alternative perspectives on current security challenges:

        Kurt Eichenwald, “Hysteria Makes ISIS Stronger,” Newsweek, 28 Aug 2014, available at

        Brian Fishman, “Don’t BS the American People About Iraq, Syria, and ISIL,” War on the Rocks, 20 Aug 2014, available at’t-bs-the-american-people-about-iraq-syria-and-isil/

        Daniel Benjamin, “Hawks Exaggerate Islamic State Threat to the United States,” Boston Globe, 17 Aug 2014, available at

        Micah Zenko, “Enough With the Chicken Littles,” Foreign Policy, 29 Jul 2014, available at

        Michael Cohen, “DC `Insiders' Are Wrong, NATO Could Beat Russia,” Defense One, 1 May 2014, available at

        Fred Kaplan, “The NATO Panic,” Slate, 28 Mar 2014, available at

158. Alternative security strategies and defense postures:

        Barry Posen, "A New U.S. Grand Strategy," Boston Review, 1 Jul 2014, available at

        Barry Posen, Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 24 Jun 2014).

        Patrick C. Doherty, "A New U.S. Grand Strategy," New America Foundation, 9 Jan 2013, available at

        Carl Conetta, “Reasonable Defense. A Sustainable Approach to Securing the Nation,” Project on Defense Alternatives, 1 Dec 2012, available at

        Lawrence Korb and Miriam Pemberton, "Rebalancing Our National Security: The Benefits of Implementing a Unified Security Budget," Institute for Policy Studies and Center for American Progress, 31 Oct 2012, available at

        Alex Rothman and Lawrence J. Korb, "Defense in an Age of Austerity," Center for American Progress, 6 Jan 2012, available at

        Richard N. Haass, “The Restoration Doctrine,” The American Interest, 9 Dec 2011, available at

        Richard N. Haass, "Bringing Our Foreign Policy Home," Time Magazine, 8 Aug 2011, available at

        Wayne Porter and Mark Mykleby, "A National Strategic Narrative," Woodrow Wilson Center, 8 Apr 2011, available at

        Leslie H. Gelb, “GDP Now Matters More Than Force: A U.S. Foreign Policy for the Age of Economic Power,” Foreign Affairs, Nov/Dec2010, available at

        Benjamin H. Friedman and Christopher Preble, “Budgetary Savings from Military Restraint,” Cato Institute, Policy Analysis #667, 23 Sep 2010, available at

        Gregory D. Foster, "Transforming U.S. National Security: A Call for Strategic Idealism," Defense & Security Analysis, Jun 2010.

        John Tirman and Nick Bromell, "The New Globalism: A Vision for America's Role in the World," AlterNet, 10 Dec 2008, available at

        Barry R. Posen, "The Case for Restraint," American Interest, 1 Nov 2007, available at

        John Feffer, et. al., "Just Security: An Alternative Foreign Policy Framework," Foreign Policy in Focus and Institute for Policy Studies, Jun 2007, available at

        Chris Abbott, Paul Rogers and John Sloboda, "Global Responses to Global Threats Sustainable Security for the 21st Century," Oxford Research Group, Jun 2006, available at

        Edward Haley, “A Defensive Grand Strategy for the United States,” Armed Forces & Society, Spring 2004.

        Stephen M. Walt, “Beyond bin Laden: Reshaping U.S. Foreign Policy,” International Security, Winter 2001/02.

159. Bipartisan efforts to restrain Pentagon spending:

         “An Open Letter to Appropriators in Congress: End the Budget Gimmicks and Cut the Pentagon’s Slush Fund,” 6 Feb 2014, available at

        Office of Rep. Keith Ellison, press release, “Reps. Ellison and Mulvaney Lead Bipartisan Effort to Include Defense Savings in Ongoing Budget Negotiations,” 11 Dec 2012, available at

        Reps. Barney Frank (D-MA) and Ron Paul (R-TX), “Why we must reduce military spending,” The Hill, 6 Jul 2010, available at

        Sustainable Defense Task Force, “Debt, Deficits, and Defense: A Way Forward,” 11 Jun 2010, available at

160. Tom Shachtman, "It's Time to Abandon 'Munich;' After 75 years, foreign policy's uber-analogy needs to go," Foreign Policy, 29 Sep 2013, available at; and, Justin Logan, "It's Past Time to Bury the Hitler Analogy,” American Prospect, 6 Nov 2007, available at

With offices in Washington DC and Cambridge MA, the Project on Defense Alternatives (PDA) is a program of the Center for International Policy.  PDA develops and promotes defense policy innovation that reconciles the goals of effective defense against aggression, enhanced  international cooperation and stability, and lower levels of military spending and armed force worldwide. Subscribe to PDA’s bi-weekly Reset Defense Bulletin.

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