Up in Arms

Published — September 6, 2012 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Is the Democratic platform in synch with the public on national defense?


The Democratic party platform released this week suggests that national security officials in a second Obama administration will attempt to leave outdated military projects behind, try to bolster the country’s international leadership, and try to control nuclear weapons materials — policies that match some but not all of the preferences expressed by members of both political parties in a May survey organized by the Center for Public Integrity.

The platform, released Tuesday, leaves plenty of wiggle room for the administration, eschewing hard numbers or strategic decisions in favor of generalities — a practice typical in platforms released at convention time that are heavy on rhetoric but light on specifics.

The 2012 platform is even more general than the Democrats’ 2008 version, which contained highly specific pledges of new aid to Afghanistan ($1 billion) and Israel ($30 billion) and called for increasing “the Army by 65,000 troops and the Marines by 27,000 troops.” Instead of looking forward, the focus of this year’s document is on what the Obama administration has already accomplished.

But it still provides a starting point to consider how Obama and his team might handle national security issues if he wins a second term. (Our look at the GOP’s platform was published Aug. 30.) While the platform does not specifically call for defense cuts, it mirrors the strategic plan laid out by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who called in January for moving away from heavy land forces and restructuring how the military spends its funds, while leaving the future defense budget mostly level.

“After more than a decade of war, we have an opportunity to retool our armed forces and our defense strategy,” to ensure “our security with a more agile and more flexible force,” states the platform.

To accomplish these goals, Panetta’s office has already proposed to increase funding for Special Forces while moving away from some traditional warfare assets. He was supported by senior military officers, including Army chief of staff Ray Odierno, who said in April he doesn’t believe “we’ll ever see a straight conventional conflict again in the future.” The Center’s survey, conducted with the Stimson Center and the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation, found widespread public support for Special Forces, coupled with a willingness to cut spending on ground forces.

Although the Republican platform also lacked specific figures on potential increases in funding or troop levels, GOP nominee Mitt Romney has made it clear that he intends to expand national defense spending if elected in November. In the survey, however, overall cuts in defense spending were supported by voters from both sides of the political spectrum. In fact, two-thirds of Republicans and nine in 10 Democrats polled supported making immediate cuts.

The average amount was around $103 billion, a substantial portion of the current $562 billion base defense budget, while the majority supported cutting it at least $83 billion. Those numbers dwarf the threatened cut of $55 billion at the end of this year under so-called “sequestration” legislation passed in 2011, which Pentagon officials and lawmakers from both parties have decried as devastating.

The Democrats’ platform includes language promoting the country’s role abroad, not just with military force but with leadership on the international stage. Africa, Latin America and the Middle East are areas that get special paragraphs calling for U.S. support and influence. The Democrats also take a shot at Obama’s Republican predecessor George W. Bush by asserting “we have restored America’s leadership at the UN … reversing the previous administration’s disdain for the UN.”

But strong international leadership may be less popular with Americans than the party’s leaders evidently expect. Seventy-two percent of respondents in our poll said the U.S. is “playing the role of military policeman too much.”

The platform reiterates Obama’s plan to remove U.S. forces from Afghanistan by 2014, which appears to be a crowd pleaser. Roughly 85 percent of the survey respondents supported a statement that said in part, “it is time for the Afghan people to manage their own country and for us to bring our troops home.” A majority backed an immediate cut of around 43 percent in Afghan war spending.

And what about the most destructive weapons in the U.S. arsenal? The platform highlights a desire by the administration to reduce the number of nuclear warheads, deployed both domestically and abroad. This stands in sharp contrast to the Republican platform, which accuses Obama of failing to modernize the nuclear arsenal and unnecessarily delaying the deployment of defenses against missiles fielded by other nations. The GOP platform echoes concerns of Congressional Republicans who criticized Obama’s New START nuclear treaty with Russia. In comparison, the Democratic Party platform offers strong support for New START and calls for further treaties with Russia and the international community.

Obama’s aides have been vague in this election year about what kind of reductions he might support in a second term, and the White House has postponed any public discussion of nuclear targeting changes widely seen as a prerequisite to a major cut. But a prominent group appointed to advise Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on arms control matters has tentatively backed two options: implementing START more quickly than the treaty’s 2018 deadline, or informally deciding with Russia that both countries should deploy even “lower levels of nuclear weapons as a matter of national policy.”

The recommendation, now awaiting final approval by the International Security Advisory Board including former Secretary of Defense William Perry, the former commander of the Global Strike Command, and many others — comes with a warning that “arms control fatigue, electoral politics, and the thorny issue of missile defense have all converged in 2012, creating poor conditions for trust and dialogue.”

In the survey, members of the public showed little hesitation about making cuts in nuclear forces, however. Respondents on average favored at least a 27 percent cut in spending on nuclear arms — the largest proportional cut of any in the survey. Overall, two-thirds of those polled — 78 percent of Democrats, 64 percent of Republicans and 57 percent of independents — expressed a desire to cut spending on nuclear arms.

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