The U.S. military, once one of the few public institutions with a strong reservoir of public trust, is losing its standing after politicization in the ranks, a chaotic end to an unsatisfying war in Afghanistan and growing public doubts that American forces can deal with the security and economic threats of a rising China.
Only 45% of the American people have a “great deal of confidence” in the military, according to a poll released Wednesday by the California-based Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute. That amounted to a 25 percentage point drop since 2018, the year of the first National Defense Survey.
President Trump had a rocky relationship with military leaders and advisers, but pollsters noted an 11-point drop since February and the start of the Biden administration. Trust in the military is declining across all major demographic subgroups, including age, gender and party affiliation.
“When President Reagan first took office, Americans were concerned that we were falling behind our adversaries abroad and pessimistic about their situation at home. This survey tells us they feel similarly today,” Roger Zakheim, director of the Ronald Reagan Institute, said in a statement.
The researchers interviewed more than 2,500 adults across the U.S. from Oct. 25 through Nov. 7. The estimated margin of error for the entire sample of respondents is about 1.9 percentage points, pollsters said.
Even with confidence levels below 50% for the first time in decades, the military remains the most trusted institution, ranking ahead of police and the medical community. News media and Congress are the least trusted, according to the poll, which tracks with other surveys.
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Rank-and-file service members, specifically enlisted personnel, top the list of respondents with high confidence in the military.
“This is a leadership problem. This is not a serviceman’s problem,” said Rep. Mike Garcia, a California Republican and former Navy fighter pilot with 30 combat missions under his belt. “I think [the people] have lost faith and trust in the leadership at the Pentagon.”
The survey shows that only one-third of adults younger than 30 have high confidence in the military, down 20 points since 2018. This could pose a problem for recruiting in an all-volunteer force, the pollsters said.
Most people who took part in the survey blame political leadership for their lack of confidence in the military. The armed forces are meant to stand outside partisan politics, but that hasn’t always been the case recently, said Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Mr. Bowman pointed to Mr. Trump’s frequent referrals to senior military leaders as “my generals” and having Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at his side in June 2020 during a walk from the White House to St. John’s Church to pose for pictures in the midst of a protest for racial justice.
Others might look at Gen. Milley’s sometimes testy debates with Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill over topics such as critical race theory as another sign of an increasingly politicized military, Mr. Bowman said.
“We want a military that is outside politics. It serves the Constitution and not any political leaders,” he said. “They’re in a political tug of war. It’s bad for the military, and it’s bad for the country.”
A ‘woke’ military?
Mr. Garcia said Pentagon leadership is too interested in pushing forward a “woke” liberal agenda, such as diversity and inclusivity training in the ranks, rather than focusing on defeating an enemy.
“We know they should know better. These guys are failing to learn and evolve,” he said. “Taking care of our troops needs to be at the forefront. We have to support the average service member.”
Confidence in the military dropped regardless of age, sex or political affiliation. Republican confidence was down 17 percentage points from February 2021, the last time the survey was taken, and the Democratic decline was 6 percentage points.
“Most Americans put the blame where it belongs: on political leaders and, to some degree, military leaders,” Mr. Bowman said.
The survey reflects what researchers said is a “growing ambivalence” on issues related to U.S. global leadership. Just 42% of Americans say the United States should be more engaged and take the lead in the world, down 9 points since February.
“However, Americans still overwhelmingly support a forward-deployed military presence abroad,” according to the study. Almost two-thirds reject isolationism and say the U.S. should maintain military bases around the world to deter attacks and respond quickly to threats.
If there is a single consensus in the study, it is a concern about the challenge China poses to the United States, according to 52% of Americans. The response cuts across all major demographic subgroups.
“This is the first time a single adversary has captured a majority of respondents’ concerns since the survey began,” the report said.
Mr. Garcia said China represents a multifaceted threat to the U.S. and can attack through military, economic and cyberspace means.
“The American people are starting to realize that we can be attacked through other means,” Mr. Garcia said. “The goal is to get everyone to recognize this.”