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Obama vs Romney on the Issues / OBAMA VS. ROMNEY: NATIONAL SECURITY

Tone Poem: Graphic

photo of Yochi J. Dreazen
June 7, 2012



President Obama believes that the United States erred by entering what he calls a costly war of choice in Iraq and by fighting largely without allies to share the human and financial costs. His planned budget cuts reflect a desire to shift more money to domestic priorities but also a broader push to put allies in charge of military missions whenever possible and to take part in ad hoc coalitions such as the one in Libya. Obama’s new approach can be seen in the Persian Gulf (where Washington wants the Sunni monarchies to pool their military resources to counter Iran) and in Asia (where the U.S. hopes that regional fears about China’s intentions will persuade its neighbors to strengthen their bonds). The administration wants the U.S. to be the world’s preeminent power—but not always its sole policeman. 

The White House abandoned a campaign pledge to close Guantánamo Bay and instead approved new military trials there. The administration has brought charges against suspected militants whenever possible, but it dropped plans to try 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York City. Obama surprised many observers by escalating the use of drones in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen; he also dispatched special operations teams to Yemen to help train the country’s counterterrorism forces. The White House wants to sharply increase the size of elite units like the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy’s SEAL Team Six, which executed the bin Laden raid. 


Obama promised to expand the war in Afghanistan, but he now speaks of almost nothing except his plan to wind it down. The administration will withdraw at least 20,000 troops this year, and it promises to halt the combat mission there by the end of 2013 while narrowing the overall U.S. mission from counterinsurgency to training Afghan forces and killing local militants. The White House says it is open to peace talks with the Taliban; it gave the armed group its quiet blessing to open a political office in Qatar and has held back-channel talks about releasing some Taliban prisoners as part of a series of confidence-building measures that could lead to the release of a missing American soldier.


The administration wants to cut $487 billion over the next 10 years from the Defense Department’s budget, which has more than doubled since 2001. The White House believes that future conflicts will largely be fought from the air, so it has called for slicing 100,000 troops from the Army and Marine Corps, for shrinking the troubled effort to field a fleet of V-22 Ospreys, and for reducing the Navy’s fleet by 14 warships. Obama also plans to bolster special operations forces, to expand cyberwarfare capabilities, and to pour money into more-advanced drones, including undersea variants and models that can take off from aircraft carriers. 



The president ordered the strike in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden. Drone attacks there, in Yemen, and in Somalia have risen sharply since Obama took office and have largely decimated al-Qaida.

Obama oversaw the with­drawal of all U.S. forces from the country according to a time line negotiated by his predecessor. But he has failed to stem Iraq’s increasingly authoritarian leanings.

Obama managed the repeal of provisions barring openly gay troops from serving in the armed forces. The policy change has proceeded smoothly, partly thanks to support from Adm. Mike Mullen, his first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In shifting from a counterterrorism strategy to a counterinsurgency campaign, the president tripled the number of U.S. forces in the country. He is now pivoting back to the earlier mission.



Hillary Rodham Clinton: Obama’s onetime rival has become arguably his most powerful national-security adviser, helping to craft the Afghan surge, the decision to use military force in Libya, and the administration’s escalating support for the Syrian rebels.

Leon Panetta: The former White House chief of staff and budget guru was Obama’s only choice for the Pentagon job, and he’s managed to keep its top military commanders from publicly rebelling against the planned Defense Department budget cuts.        

John Brennan: As Obama’s chief counterterrorism aide, Brennan oversees the interagency process that selects subjects for targeted assassination overseas by American drones or commandos. He also serves as a back-channel emissary to top national-security officials in countries such as Yemen.

Adm. William McRaven: He is not the military’s highest-ranking official, but McRaven earned Obama’s respect by overseeing the bin Laden raid and several other successful strikes. The head of the Special Operations Command sat with first lady Michelle Obama at last year’s State of the Union address.




Romney has promised a muscular foreign policy that envisions an America with the strength—and willingness—to act unilaterally, even at the risk of being pulled into a drawn-out conflict. He blasted Obama for deferring to allies before intervening in Libya and refusing to consider using force in Syria without U.N. approval. Romney wants the United States to arm the Syrian opposition, and he suggests he would use force against Iran if it doesn’t abandon its nuclear program. Romney’s approach to the world is on clear display in his defense-spending plan, which would keep the Pentagon’s budget on a steady uphill climb despite the end of the Iraq and Afghan wars. It is also evident in his promise to station warships off Iran’s coast—a clear, if potentially dangerous, statement of U.S. resolve. 


The former Massachusetts governor has vowed to reverse what he describes as Obama’s massive defense cuts by adding 100,000 more ground troops; purchasing 15 new Navy vessels per year rather than the current nine; and maintaining the number of carrier groups. The proposals please the Republican base but run counter to the advice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which supports Obama’s budget-trimming proposals. Romney hasn’t said how he would pay for the new military expenditures. He also wants to pour money into missile defense, including systems designed to counter long-range, intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Romney has tried hard to draw a sharp contrast with Obama about the future of the long and unpopular war, but he has struggled to articulate a detailed policy. He promises to defer to military commanders about the size and pace of the drawdown, and he has pointedly jabbed Obama for angering many in the Pentagon by setting an 18-month deadline for beginning to remove surge troops from Afghanistan without first consulting his generals. Romney opposes peace talks with the Taliban, a central part of the White House’s exit strategy, because he says that such negotiations would demonstrate a lack of resolve. He has also promised to take a harsher line with Pakistan but offers few specifics about how far he would be willing to go. 

The ex-governor has long called for keeping the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay open and for holding virtually all terrorism trials there. He has praised the administration’s willingness to use drones to hunt militants in countries such as Pakistan and Somalia but argues that the White House has erred by relying so heavily on killing militants rather than capturing them for questioning. Although Romney has been vague about how he would treat captured militants, he says he doesn’t think waterboarding is torture and would consider approving its use. Like Obama, Romney has said he would order the killing of U.S. citizens overseas if it was clear they were plotting attacks against the United States.



Romney blasted Obama for fully withdrawing from Iraq instead of persuading its leaders to allow some U.S. troops to remain behind as insurance against a civil war.

He initially praised Obama for the bin Laden raid but has spent months complaining that the president has received too much credit. Romney’s campaign contends that any president would have made the same decision.

Romney opposed repealing the ban on openly gay troops but has said he wouldn’t reinstate it.

The Republican wants to funnel U.S. arms to the country’s rebels, who are currently outgunned by Bashar al-Assad’s forces, and to help train them into a more capable force. But, breaking with key Senate Republicans, Romney has refused to advocate military intervention there.



Dan Senor: A onetime spokesman for the U.S. occupation in Iraq, he is a special adviser to Romney and his primary national-security surrogate. Senor cofounded the Foreign Policy Initiative, a hawkish think tank that calls for a harsher line toward Iran and Syria.

John Lehman: The secretary of the Navy during the Reagan years, Lehman cochairs Romney’s defense working group. The highly trusted aide has raised eyebrows by still referring to Russia as the Soviet Union.    

Michael Hayden: A former director of the National Security Agency and the CIA, Hayden is one of Romney’s highest-profile and most-experienced advisers. He helped design and oversee the George W. Bush administration’s warrantless-wiretapping program.

Michael Chertoff: He ran the Homeland Security Department in the Bush administration, and he now advises Romney on counterterrorism and intelligence issues. Chertoff, likeHayden, has a high profile and a solid reputation among lawmakers of both parties.

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