Obama, Romney Playing Same Defense

The new turmoil in the Middle East, including the recent killing of our U.S. ambassador in Libya, has raised the profile, and the rhetoric, on foreign policy and national security in the presidential race.

But an examination of two central issues in the race, proper levels of U.S. military spending and the use of military force, suggests a more nuanced and intelligent debate between the two men. And the differences between them are far narrower than the rhetoric suggests:

Defense spending. President Obama wants to cut the size of the U.S. ground forces to nearly where they were just before 9/11. That is one way he will seek to save almost $500 billion over the next decade on defense costs. War costs would also decline as troops gradually leave Afghanistan. Obama strongly opposes further cuts, including the additional $500 billion over a decade that would result from so-called sequestration.

Mitt Romney, in turn, opposes that first $500 billion in 10-year cuts that the president favors (and opposes sequestration, too). He wants to increase the Navy shipbuilding budget to 15 ships a year from Obama’s nine and keep ground forces near where they are, about 100,000 more troops than the president forecasts.

Budget visions similar

The two candidates have used sharp language to critique each other’s plans. But Romney’s actual plan is little different from the one Obama favored two years ago, before the budget deficit moved to the center of the political debate. Romney says he aspires to spend 4% of GDP on defense, a big jump, but that is explicitly described as an aspiration, not a plan, on his campaign website.

Obama’s plan has been blessed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It would keep core defense spending well over $500 billion a year. Even so, the Joint Chiefs effectively work for the president, so the absence of strong objections is not necessarily a ringing endorsement. More likely, they share some of the thinking of former Joint Chiefs chairman Michael Mullen, who has argued that the national debt had itself become a national security threat and required serious measures in order to reduce it. Unfortunately, while defense is being cut, entitlements are not, and tax revenues are not being increased, either.

Use of military force. The candidates seem far more united than divided, though there are subtle and important differences in their thinking on Iran and Syria.

Each man likes to criticize the other for their Afghanistan views but, in fact, they agree on the central strategy: U.S. forces should gradually downsize from now until 2014. Neither proposes another Iraq-style mission in Syria or another pre-emption in Iran. Both want to stand up firmly to China but, wisely, neither suggests that war could be in the offing. And neither talks adventurously about attacking North Korea to eliminate its nuclear weapons.

Slight differences on Syria

On Syria, Romney appears to favor a more robust arming of the rebels by other countries, but it is not clear that this position is meaningfully different from Obama’s. On Iran, Romney is more predisposed to give Israel a green light to attack Iranian nuclear facilities whereas Obama, while not ruling out the use of force, believes in allowing strong international sanctions a bit more time to work.

Who holds the stronger positions? Placing defense spending in a broader context, the edge goes to Obama. His projected deficits will be less than Romney’s.

As such, his defense budget plan will help us deal with the debt problem. In the process, it will accept more short-term military risk but to a degree that appears reasonable.

Saddam Hussein is gone, so we can cut ground forces to near-1990s levels; the Navy can find more efficient ways to deploy and base ships abroad, so we needn’t build ships at a faster rate; military compensation remains robust, so we can probably make deeper reforms than planned.

But Romney is hardly some Neanderthal trying to solve every global problem with a military tool; he is espousing a defense plan Obama proposed in 2009 and 2010. Moreover, his policy of arming Syrian rebels makes good sense at this point, even if Obama’s hesitancy to use of force against Iran would seem the wiser course there.

The bottom line is that both candidates’ viewpoints fall within the mainstream of the strategic spectrum, and their differences over military policy provide a healthy basis for a serious debate for the nation. This election season, that is a good thing for America.