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Polling Matters
U.S. Defense Budget, Afghanistan Withdrawal Not Hot-Button Issues
Polling Matters

U.S. Defense Budget, Afghanistan Withdrawal Not Hot-Button Issues

President Joe Biden's proposed federal budget for 2022 includes $715 billion for military spending, a 1.6% increase from 2021 but a pullback from the year-by-year increases seen during the Trump administration and, with inflation taken into account, essentially unchanged from the previous year.

Elected officials from both ends of the ideological spectrum have criticized the new defense budget. Progressives want significant cuts in military spending, as exemplified by the comments of Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, who argued that defense spending "takes away from funding that could be spent on other people-centric policies like healthcare, education and housing." Republicans want a significantly larger increase. A group of Republican senators, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, released a statement saying, "While President Biden has prioritized spending trillions on liberal wish list priorities here at home, funding for America's military is neglected."

My reading of the public's views on defense spending suggests there will not be much of a public reaction to the proposed military budget in either of these directions. We are in a period of relative public quiescence on the military spending front. Americans' views of military spending and the state of the country's defense are about average for what we have measured in past decades. There is neither an unusually strong feeling on the part of the average American that the military must be strengthened, nor that defense spending should be cut back.

This conclusion is based primarily on what we learn from two questions Gallup has trended for decades. The first asks if the government in Washington is spending too little, about the right amount or too much for national defense and military purposes. The second asks if the national defense is stronger now than it needs to be, not strong enough or about right.

The public's responses to the three-part military spending question are mixed and, as noted, at about average levels, with 42% in Gallup's February update saying military spending is about right, 30% saying the nation is spending too much and 26% saying the nation is spending too little. (The "about right" percentage is down from last year's 50%, which was the highest percentage choosing this middle category in Gallup's history of asking the question.)

There have been times when responses to these questions skewed more strongly in one direction or the other. A Gallup poll conducted in January 1981, just after Ronald Reagan took office, showed that 51% of the public felt there was too little being spent on national defense and the military. This, at least in part, reflected Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign focus on the contention that the nation's defenses under Democrat Jimmy Carter had become underfunded and that "we must rebuild our defense capability." Indeed, that 51% stands as the all-time high for the "too little" category.

Americans' views that the U.S. is spending too much on the military, on the other hand, have been much higher than now at several points in history, including readings of 52% in 1969 and 50% in 1971 as the Nixon administration was attempting to wind down the vastly expensive Vietnam War. Americans, perhaps reacting to Reagan's success in significantly increasing military spending, also became more likely to say there was too much defense spending during his second term -- sentiments that carried over to the first years of the George H.W. Bush administration.

Despite increases in military spending between 2017 and 2020 during the Trump administration, the view that the nation is spending too much on defense has been fairly stable over the past four years, in the 29% to 34% range.

Americans' opinions about the strength of the national defense follow the same basic pattern as their views on defense spending, as would be expected. Over the 37 years Gallup has asked the three-part question about the nation's military, by far the most prevalent result is for Americans to say it is "about right." This year, 50% choose this middle alternative, higher than the 35% who say the nation's defense is not strong enough and the 14% who say it is too strong. While more than twice as many Americans are concerned that the military is not strong enough than say it is too strong, this is the typical pattern observed through the years. The average "not strong enough" percentage across the 24 times Gallup has asked the question going back to 1984 is 38%, while the average "too strong" percentage is 10%.

Other indications evident from recent public opinion data undergird the conclusion that the public is not very concerned about the level of military spending at this point in history.

  • Mentions of a lack of military defense and national security are essentially nonexistent in Gallup's monthly update on the most important problem facing the country today.
  • A Gallup update in January showed that 74% of Americans are very or somewhat satisfied with the nation's military strength and preparedness, putting this issue sixth highest in the list of 21 issues tested.
  • An AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll in December showed that just 3% of Americans mentioned national security or defense as a problem on which the government should be working in 2021.
  • Americans continue to have high confidence in the military -- more than any other institution Gallup measures, except for small business.
  • A majority of Americans believe that the U.S. is No. 1 in the world militarily, as has been the case in all but two years (2013 and 2016) in which the question has been asked by Gallup since 1993.

Public Protest Over Afghanistan Pullout Unlikely

Regardless of what the final budget ends up allocating for defense spending next year, it is certain that spending will be down in one theater of war -- Afghanistan -- given Biden's recent announcement that the U.S. will withdraw its remaining troops from that country by the fall. As Biden said, "With the terror threat now in many places, keeping thousands of troops grounded and concentrated in just one country at a cost of billions each year makes little sense to me and to our leaders."

As is the case for military and defense spending in general, I do not see strong evidence that this decision is going to produce significant pushback from the American public.

An AP-NORC poll conducted last September asked Americans to choose among four alternatives for what to do next in Afghanistan -- increase U.S. troops, keep the number of U.S. troops as is, decrease U.S. troops or withdraw all U.S. troops. "Withdraw all" was the most frequently chosen response, at 32%, followed by another 29% who wanted troop levels decreased -- meaning that over six in 10 Americans appear to be OK with a decrease or total withdrawal.

Importantly, that poll also showed that over half of Americans said they do not follow any news about U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, bolstering the assumption of public complacency in the face of the withdrawal decision. Along those same lines, almost no Americans mention Afghanistan as the most important problem facing the nation in Gallup's monthly updates, suggesting that the 20-year U.S. involvement there is essentially out of mind for most Americans.

In November 2001, just as U.S. troops arrived in Afghanistan, Gallup began asking Americans if U.S. involvement in that country was a mistake, and has continued to do so periodically in the two decades since. Few thought Afghanistan was a mistake initially, and while over the years the "mistake" percentage has increased, it has never breached the 50% mark. In our last asking in August 2019, 43% of Americans said sending U.S. troops to Afghanistan was a mistake, 52% said it was not, and 5% evinced no opinion. So, even as the U.S. prepares to withdraw militarily from Afghanistan, the majority of Americans apparently will view involvement there since 2001 to have been worthwhile -- despite a cost of over $800 billion, 2,300 deaths among American forces, and estimates of over 100,000 Afghan military, police and civilian lives lost.

By contrast, half or more of Americans have said in most recent years that U.S. involvement in Iraq was a mistake, including a high of 63% giving this opinion in 2008. The "mistake" percentage for U.S. involvement in Vietnam reached 61% in 1971, and has been as high as 74% retroactively in the years since the U.S. withdrew from that war in 1973.

Bottom Line

The announcement of the proposed new defense budget and the pending withdrawal of all remaining troops from Afghanistan most likely will not have a major impact on the equanimity of the American public. Neither is a hot-button issue about which Americans are expressing deep concern, and available data do not show signs of significant opposition to either decision.

At the same time, terrorism continues to be perceived as a critical threat by over seven in 10 Americans, and it is important to remember that countering terrorism was the original rationale for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. If events in the future serve to vault terrorism back into the headlines, or if China, now perceived as the nation's greatest enemy, becomes even more active militarily, it may be that the public will become more concerned about U.S. military strength in the months and years ahead.

Americans continue to have confidence in their military and are still convinced the U.S. is No. 1 in the world militarily. These views could either serve to bolster perceptions that military spending needs to remain at current (or higher) levels to maintain this positive military positioning, or could in theory mean that Americans will become more receptive to the idea of reducing military spending since things are going well.

Author(s)

Frank Newport, Ph.D., is a Gallup senior scientist. He is the author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People and God Is Alive and Well. Twitter: @Frank_Newport


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