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Barack Obama and Mitt Romney differ on national security, but their disagreement is as much about posture as substance.

In July, Mitt Romney stood before an audience of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and delivered a series of political broadsides against President Obama. He blasted the administration’s “radical cuts in the military,” called its leaks of classified information “contemptible,” and criticized its “sudden abandonment of friends in Poland and the Czech Republic” for canceling missile-defense sites in those countries.

The speech was more than just an opportunity for Romney to flex his rhetorical muscles. It was his attempt to articulate a detailed philosophy of how he would act to keep America safe in an era of rapidly evolving threats from shadowy terrorist groups and rogue nations. In the coming era, Romney vowed, the U.S. would retain the world’s biggest economy and strongest military, the better to put its indelible stamp on the new century. “I am not ashamed of American power,” Romney told the veterans. “I believe our country is the greatest force for good the world has ever known, and that our influence is needed as much now as ever.”


Perhaps the most striking aspect of the speech was its necessity: Republicans have for decades outpolled Democrats on national security; this time around, Obama and Romney are basically tied, with Obama drawing more support in several recent surveys. Romney has little choice but to play offense.

National-security and foreign-policy issues are taking a clear backseat to the economy in this year’s presidential election. That’s a shame, because the candidates offer voters clear choices on issues such as the size of the armed forces and whether the U.S. should go it alone in dealing with Syria. At the same time, there is little daylight between them on the two most important national-security questions of the moment: the pace of the troop drawdown in Afghanistan and how far Washington should go to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions.


Romney and Obama have clashed over a pair of fundamental and complicated questions. First, in this era of diminished resources, what kind of role should the U.S. military play in the world? And second, can—or should—the United States continue to shoulder its long-standing duty as the world’s policeman?


Obama offers one set of answers to those questions. In December 2009, the president traveled to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to announce his plan to surge 33,000 troops into Afghanistan. He promised, though, that he wouldn’t keep troops there indefinitely because, simply put, the financial costs were too high. “I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests,” he said, noting that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had already cost the United States $1 trillion that could have been spent at home. “We’ve failed to appreciate the connection between our national security and our economy.… We can’t simply afford to ignore the price of these wars.”

The president has since announced plans to shave $487 billion from the Pentagon’s budget over the next decade, partly by cutting 100,000 ground troops and buying fewer next-generation Air Force fighters and Navy warships. The “sequester,” or across-the-board automatic budget reductions, slated to kick in at the end of the year would slice another $500 billion from Defense Department coffers. Obama has made it clear that he doesn’t want to see those cuts take effect, but he says he’s willing to suffer the consequences rather than let Congress off the hook on a deficit-reduction deal. He says he would veto Republican efforts to remove the defense cuts from the sequester.

Romney has a starkly different national-defense philosophy. He has promised to reverse what he calls Obama’s “massive” defense cuts and boost the Pentagon’s budget. The presumptive GOP nominee says he wants to add 100,000 ground troops, increase the Navy’s ship-buying budget from nine to 15 vessels a year, and maintain the current fleet of carrier battle groups, the most powerful—and most expensive—weapon in the U.S. seaborne arsenal. The Republican also wants to purchase more F-35s, a next-generation model of amazingly advanced, but staggeringly expensive, stealth warplanes.

The former Massachusetts governor’s spending plans don’t stop there. He has promised to devote more money to missile defense—including systems designed to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles—to protect the U.S. from potential attacks from Iran or North Korea. Romney hasn’t specified how much the new programs would cost, but, if fully implemented, they would amount to billions of dollars in new spending. He has also called for protecting the Pentagon from the sequester and allowing the full budgetary ax to fall solely on domestic programs.



Beyond the dollars and cents, Obama’s national-security policy is based on the tenet that the U.S. should rarely, if ever, launch large-scale military operations without the support of key allies. In Libya, the administration dithered for months before agreeing to funnel weapons and armaments to the ragtag rebels battling Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi. Obama didn’t commit warplanes and drones to the fight until both the Arab League and the United Nations had signed off on such an intervention—and until France and Britain had dispatched larger numbers of their own planes and military assets. The carnage goes on in Syria, but the administration has steadfastly maintained that the U.S. won’t use military force there because of the lack of international support for action and because other nations are not ready to contribute troops, helicopters, or warplanes to the effort.

This article appears in the August 25, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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