And the American public is starting to believe them.
- By Micah ZenkoMicah Zenko (@MicahZenko) is a senior fellow with the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations and is the author of Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy.
“I will take umbrage with the notion that our military has been gutted,” Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Paul Selva stated during a Pentagon press briefing in early February. “I stand here today a person that’s worn this uniform for 35 years. At no time in my career have I been more confident than this instant in saying we have the most powerful military on the face of the planet.” The American public, it seems, would beg to differ. According to a to a Gallup poll conducted the same week as Selva’s testimony, just 49 percent of Americans “think the United States is number one in the world militarily,” the fewest since the question was first asked in 1993. An equal number of Americans (49 percent) believed that the United States was “only one of several leading military powers.”
What explains the difference between Americans’ perceptions and those of senior military officials? The primary responsibility for this disconnect lies in the vastly different ways that each group gathers information. It’s not just that military officials take pride in the professionalism of the men and women who serve under them. In their rotations through the National Training Centers and in overseas combat deployments, they also gain a first-hand appreciation for the vastness of U.S. military power.
Meanwhile, average Americans — the 93 percent who have not served — are told over and over by politicians and ideologically-affiliated media outlets about the alleged weaknesses of the military. Here, the contemporary blame lies overwhelmingly with the Republican Party. (This was not always the case; during the 2000 presidential election, Vice President Al Gore routinely promised to “do whatever is necessary in order to make sure our forces stay the strongest in the world” and even pledged to spend “twice as much” on defense than George W. Bush.) Given the frequency with which Republican presidential candidates in particular have taken to denigrating the military, it’s unsurprising that Americans increasingly believe that other countries have matched, or surpassed, the strength of U.S. armed forces.
Frontrunner Donald Trump has most consistently described the U.S. armed forces as “a disaster,” “very weak” and steadily “being decimated.” In New Hampshire earlier this month, he said, “We don’t win with the military, we can’t beat ISIS. We don’t win with anything.” Drawing on his experience as a real estate magnate, he also declared, “An Army base, a Navy base. Everything’s for sale. If it’s a military base, it’s for sale. And we can’t have that. We’re gonna build it big….Nobody respects us, they’re laughing at us. We don’t know what we’re doing.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) has similarly contended that the U.S. military is “debilitated” and has faced “seven years of neglect,” and that its “ability to project power and obtain air superiority is tragically anemic.” During the most recent Republican debate, he placed the blame on President Obama for having “dramatically degraded our military.” Cruz also claimed that the alleged debilitation was the result of strict rules of engagement imposed upon the military, calling it “immoral” that U.S. service members are forced to “fight with their arms tied behind their back. They cannot defend themselves.”
In December, when Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) was asked about Cruz’s initial pledge to “carpet bomb” the Islamic State, Rubio did not denounce the war crime, but rather replied, “You can’t carpet bomb ISIS if you don’t have planes and bombs to attack them with.” Rubio has also claimed that the Obama administration was “weakening” the military and “eviscerating” military spending. Subsequently, Rubio believes that “America’s influence has declined while this president has destroyed our military.”
Finally, the remaining hanging-on GOP candidates, and those who have dropped out, echoed their competitors in describing an enfeebled U.S. military. Former Governor Jeb Bush labeled the lack of military readiness “quite scary,” Ben Carson argued “We have weakened ourselves militarily to such an extent that if affects all of our military policies,” while Governor Chris Christie stated, “The military is not ready. …We need to rebuild our military, and this president has let it diminish to a point where tinpot dictators like the mullahs in Iran are taking our Navy ships.”
The consequence of politicians constantly telling Americans that its military is crippled and ineffective is that they eventually believe such claims to be true, despite their lack of basis in reality. The United States spends more on defense than any potential peer competitors, $610 billion compared to $84 billion for Russia and $216 billion for China, according to the latest data collected by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute It also has the only truly global logistics architecture that allows it to conduct the full spectrum of military operations virtually anywhere in the world.
It’s sad that allegedly “patriotic” politicians are so willing to downplay the strength and effectiveness of the military and its 1.34 million active-duty service members merely to obtain some political advantage. Moreover, if Republican presidential candidates are truly concerned about demonstrating strength and resolve toward America’s adversaries and allies, then bad-mouthing the government institution most responsible for projecting that strength and resolve is a puzzling strategy.
Another reason that Americans might believe its military is no longer number one is that President Obama has not authorized every troop deployment or use of force that has been proposed by members of Congress or, indeed, his own staff. He opted not to leave a significant combat presence in Iraq after 2011, and has refused to commit the United States to leading and coordinating a “safe zone” somewhere within Syria. However, Americans should not equate a commander-in-chief’s decision not to use the military with the military’s lack of readiness or its ineffectiveness. Rather, this is the intended outcome of the framework of the Constitution, whereby elected civilians, and those serving under them, exercise control over where the military will be used.
Moreover, every president imposes limits on how kinetic force is actually applied. For example, Ronald Reagan personally directed before the April 1986 bombing of Libya that certain military targets be “removed from the list because they were too close to populated areas,” and George H.W. Bush ordered that targets in Baghdad — including statues of Saddam Hussein and triumphal arches — not be bombed before the first Gulf War. The United States, even during World War II, has never conducted an absolute war with zero restraints on the lethality and destructiveness of its military. Presidents exercise their judgment and, in turn, we evaluate the wisdom of their decision-making. But the ultimate responsibility or blame for those decisions lies with the president and his civilian underlings, not with the troops in uniform.
America is unquestionably the number one military in the world, in every significant qualitative or quantitative metric. One subjective way that you can measure this is if you find yourself next to a senior military officer, ask them if they would trade U.S. troops or capabilities with those of Russia, China, or Iran. You may hear concerns about the growing proficiency and strength of those militaries’ capabilities, but I have never found anyone who would willingly make that trade. Americans should recognize and appreciate the military that their taxpayer dollars supports, and the competencies and professionalism of those who serve. And they should not let any politician tell them otherwise.
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