Don???t try this at home: Crowdsourcing national defense

Armchair defense budgeting is all the rage.

Last week, the Center for Public Consultation repackaged a recent survey on defense spending to show that American citizens???Republican as well as Democrat???favored significant cuts to the Department of Defense, and that even those from military-heavy regions often opted to cut deeply.

President Barack Obama???s $525 billion request for Defense Department spending in 2013 is down from $530 billion in 2012, in keeping with an already-programmed slate of $487 billion in reductions to be taken across the next decade, before any additional sequester cuts are exacted.

Given a few paragraphs of information arguing for and against more spending and a blank box with a dollar sign, the 665 respondents the center polled crafted a defense budget on average 18 percent below current spending levels.

???Portraying this as a partisan difference to me doesn???t seem to be true,??? survey co-creator Matt Leatherman of the Stimson Center said during a presentation of the data on Capitol Hill.

In reality, especially on defense issues, public answers change every time pollsters ask the questions. Gallup, which surveys public opinion on defense spending levels annually, charts a careening line graph showing often dramatic changes in American thought on the subject every single year.

The question is especially relevant given the prospect on Capitol Hill of sequestration: an added half-trillion in cuts to be exacted from the Defense Department automatically if Congress does not act to avoid them. While Defense leaders say the cuts will create a ???hollow force??? unable to respond to contingencies, the perception of a permissive American public could make Congress less anxious to take action.

Spending evidently hit a sweet spot in 2005, when equal percentages of respondents thought the Defense Department was spending too much and too little; since then, anywhere between 31 percent and 44 percent of Americans have wanted to cut defense spending, while between 52 percent and 65 percent of respondents have wanted to raise it or keep it the same.

A national security strategist with centrist think tank Third Way, Mieke Eoyang, said her research has shown that answers on spending change based on how questions are phrased and what context is given.

Conservative gut reactions

???Conservative voters have this strong gut reaction that says don???t cut defense, but they feel we also have to reduce the deficit,??? Eoyang said. ???Those two values really clash.???

At the Heritage Foundation, national security fellow Baker Spring said that defense spending ideals were frequently at odds with real-world conditions and current realities.

???Even among those who would be skeptical about overall wisdom of an Afghanistan invasion, say that no, we don???t want to leave our troops hanging out there, unprepared and not properly equipped with the best weapons in hand,??? he said. ???It shouldn???t surprise people that we find wildly disparate answers (in polls). They???re almost always done in the abstract.???

Spring said he???d like to see the budget hover at levels of about 4 percent of GDP, a larger share than defense will receive under sequestration and significantly less than in previous decades.

???The fact of the matter is defense is a share of GDP and as a share of the overall has been trending downward pretty consistently since the 1960s,??? Spring said.

Mackenzie Eaglen, an American Enterprise Institute fellow in security studies, said the wide variance in public opinion on defense showed that educating about defense issues was a process.

???Traditionally, Americans think we spend too much on defense, but when you ask them how much we spend, they think we spend four times more than we do,??? Eaglen said.

The public has been burned by stories of waste and fraud. In the 1980s, when Americans found out their dollars had been spent for a $9,000 wrench and $600 toilet seat in the military, polls peaked with 46 percent to 50 percent of Americans believing too much was spent on defense.

Still, Eaglen said, ???there???s a remarkably steady constant among the populace that a strong defense is a good thing.???