Time for the national security race to get real

A definite challenger to President Obama could bring new detail and reality to the debate over the future of defense.

You’ve seen almost nothing about the presidential candidates’ national security views on this blog. Until Tuesday, almost nothing the candidates said was worth the TV airtime they used to say it.

The national security dimension of the GOP primary was absurd when it wasn’t embarrassing. The candidates fought over whether U.S. troops could come under the authority of foreign commanders; the dangers of Islamist influence in Central America; and, for a time, a proposed American base on the Moon. They spent an entire debate under the impression that Fidel Castro was still the president of Cuba. They called for deploying American warships to the Persian Gulf even as those selfsame Navy ships were already on patrol. They said almost nothing about the war in Afghanistan they’d inherit if elected.

None of this was the fault of any one candidate. People care mostly about domestic issues this year, and the net effect of starting with a large field and enduring a long primary was constant rightward pressure to appeal to conservative voters, not offer workable proposals. All of that could drop away, however, with Tuesday’s announcement that Rick Santorum was dropping out of the GOP presidential race. That leaves just frontrunner Mitt Romney with an apparently unobstructed path to his party’s nomination, and it could mean that, at long last, voters can expect some real information about one of their choices by Election Day in November.

There are many people in the military-industrial-congressional complex who have been counting on a Republican — any Republican — to take the White House this year. Republicans get the defense industry, the thinking goes; they support the Pentagon; and only a Republican president will make a concerted effort to step in and stop the budget guillotine looming over Washington.

President Obama, for his part, will not go along with proposed stopgap “patches” that would spare the first year of budget sequestration, or wall off DoD from its effects. He insists that Congress must get a “comprehensive” deal to prevent another $500 billion in reduced defense budget growth, although the outlook for that is grim.  As an electoral strategy, this seems borderline masochistic, given the threat to defense jobs in key states such as Pennsylvania and Florida — to say nothing of the nationwide ripple effects of potential new military base closures. But the president appears willing to gamble that he can gain votes elsewhere to offset the ones he could lose over defense cuts.

The rest of his defense program is clear: 100,000 fewer soldiers and Marines over the coming six years, paired with a drawdown in Afghanistan that would hand control of the war to Kabul by 2014. A ten-year commitment, likely finalized next month in Chicago, to continue funding and training the Afghan National Security Forces. A new bomber for the Air Force and a new ballistic missile submarine for the Navy, but no newly developed nuclear weapons — in fact, the potential for a much smaller nuclear arsenal overall. Marines, airmen and other forces moving westward to Australia as part of the “pivot” to the Western Pacific, etc.

Romney, however, has not yet had to get specific on the defense policy he’d pursue as president. Much of his platform today is just boilerplate: Romney promises he’d “review” the Afghanistan situation; “not make national security decisions based on electoral politics;” and conduct an Afghan withdrawal “based on conditions on the ground as assessed by our military commanders.” Romney calls for Pakistan’s intelligence service to sever its connections with insurgent and terror groups. He criticizes corruption in the Afghan government. Reporters will likely get to work soon trying to fill in this thumbnail sketch.

There are some big differences in Romney’s program: He proposes to counter Chinese influence in the Western Pacific with a “Reagan Economic Zone” free trade club; renewed arm sales to Taiwan and other allies; and new pressure on Beijing to improve its domestic human rights. (Obama has dramatically scaled back support for Taiwan and turned the volume way down on China’s human rights abuses, as compared to former presidents.) Romney would also try to persuade China “to commit to North Korea’s disarmament,” as part of a broader get-tough strategy against Pyongyang — it ain’t gonna happen, but that’s where he’s coming from.

The signature detail in Romney’s national security policy is belief that “core defense spending” should constitute 4 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product, a goal long cherished by conservative Beltway think-tankists. Much like Romney’s goal of turning Beijing against Pyongyang, this isn’t going to happen, but the idea shows his basic commitment to pumping up the Pentagon’s budget.  The campaign concedes this notion “will not be a cost-free process,” but it does not detail how Romney could both deliver  the tax cuts he promises, the 4 Percent Solution, and wrestle the long-term U.S. deficit.

The answer to that question will be critical to understanding how Romney would follow up on one of his best-known stump speech attacks on the Obama administration, one borrowed from the Pentagon’s own talking points: That the Navy’s fleet is the smallest it’s been since 1917 and the Air Force’s is the smallest in its history.

The real story is that each service mostly has itself to blame, having squandered a decade of record budgets and wound up today with no operational LCSes; no CG(X); no operational DDG 100s; no new tankers; no operational F-35s; no Expeditionary Fighting Vehicles; no new bomber; a fraction of once-planned F-22s; a new carrier with a $1 billion cost overrun; and aging legacy fleets that must serve ever longer. But you can’t turn that into a sound bite, and it’s a history that covers both Republican and Democratic administrations. So what Romney does say — besides just cranking up the spending — will be very interesting.

Romney’s campaign took a lot of heat from its former rivals when an adviser said it needed to shake itself up “like an Etch-a-Sketch” to move from the Republican primary to the general election against Obama. For the national security world, however, that could be a welcome move. It could help the hundreds of thousands whose livelihoods depend on the defense game to conclude for certain which candidate would best protect their interests as president. And for millions of voters, the “new” campaign could set up a clear choice about who’d they’d prefer as the next commander-in-chief.