A Question for Each Candidate

Michael E. O’Hanlon

Beyond the issue of Benghazi, where as I wrote earlier this week I hope that tempers begin to cool and the September 11 tragedy begins to be placed in more reasonable perspective, I have two major concerns that can be posed in the form of a probing question to each candidate before Monday’s final presidential debate.

Time for Afghanistan clarity

For President Obama, having heard the vice presidential debate and Mr. Biden’s repeated statements that U.S. forces will be out of Afghanistan by 2014, is it not true that this is in fact contrary to administration policy?

You traveled to Kabul on May 1 and signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement with President Hamid Karzai that envisions – crucially and correctly – a U.S. commitment to Afghanistan beyond 2014.  Although we do not yet have a status of forces agreement that would facilitate an American troop presence beyond that date, the clear hope and expectation is that we will negotiate one in time to make possible a follow-on force. To be sure, the current NATO mission as presently construed will end in 2014, but isn’t it true that you are expecting American forces in more modest numbers will still be needed after that date? And isn’t it important that Afghans hear this message from us loud and clear, to reduce their phobias and paranoia that they will soon be left entirely to their own devices (as happened after the Soviets withdrew in 1989)?  After all, in the minds of many Afghanistan watchers, such fears tend to heighten the risk of state collapse and civil warfare along ethnic lines, because Afghans tend to revert to ethnic and militia loyalties when they are unsure of the future of the national government.

Defense – how will you pay for it?

For Governor Romney, your defense spending plan is confusing. On the one hand, you promise to reverse President Obama’s planned cuts of some $487 billion over 10 years, relative to earlier plans, as codified in the 2011 Budget Control Act.  (You and the president both oppose possible sequestration cuts that could kick in starting January 1, so that is not really the issue here.)  There were also cuts of some $100 billion (over five years) announced earlier by then Secretary of Defense Gates that you would presumably overturn as well, for a total difference with the president of some $600 billion over a decade. But your website also talks about the goal of keeping defense spending at least at 4 percent of GDP apparently indefinitely into the future. This would make your plan somewhere between $1.5 trillion and $2 trillion greater over that period than President Obama’s.

Is this latter target for defense spending an aspirational goal or a serious plan?  If the latter, how can you possibly pay for it while also reducing tax rates, protecting most entitlement spending, and constraining the deficit?