The difference between President Obama and the Republican presidential nominee Mitt Rominee and their defense platforms fall to their budgets. Otherewise, there’s not much to debate, said Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at Brookings specializing in defense and foreign policy issues.
O’Hanlon went further. He said Romney’s defense plan mimics the one put forth by Obama in 2009.
The Obama administration plans to cut back the Army and Marine Corps by about 80,000 and 20,000, respectively, to begin reducing personnel costs. Obama also plans to drop ship building for the Navy down to nine ships a year.
Romney has balked on manpower cuts and would increase ship building to 15 ships per year. He even said Saturday that his administration would buy more F-22s for the Air Force.
“The difference [between them] is important but not necessarily earth-shattering, not necessarily tectonic,” he said. “You can almost imagine this as Obama 2009 versus Obama 2012 in terms of the range of debate over the proper future of our budget.”
This is one of the reasons that defense spending and the war in Afghanistan are not the go-to topics when the candidates are on the stump, said O’Hanlon at a panel discussion hosted by Brookings on the upcoming election.
Romney said he likes Obama’s 2009 Defense budget better than the 2012 budget, O’Hanlon said.
In 2009, the new president planned on modest defense growth to meet procurement needs. But as the deficit became more widely viewed as a national security threat, the Pentagon was expected to make cuts along with the rest of government.
The Pentagon came up first with about $400 billion in cuts over a decade. Obama and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates then added roughly another $100 billion to the total.
O’Hanlon said he has not been able to determine exactly what Romney would do if he’s elected.
“[I]it’s not entirely clear to me if Governor Romney would reverse those initial modest cuts that Gates made, or only reverse the cuts that Obama made … and then put them in his budget plan and present that to Congress in February” if he is elected,” O’Hanlon said.
On closer inspection, the amount that would be cut under Obama’s plan is not even the roughly $500 billion projected because he had already planned on adding more than $100 billion to the Pentagon budget, O’Hanlon said.
As a result, the 10-year reduction in DoD spending would actually come out closer to about $350 billion.
And even with those kinds of cuts, he said, Pentagon spending by 2015 would in be on par with what it spent during the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars under the Bush administrations.
During a second panel on foreign policy, panelists also noted few differences between Obama and Romney. Both see an end to an American combat role in Afghanistan by 2012, with Romney taking issue only with Obama’s having signaled when troops would start coming out and in what numbers.
Both also agree to the so-called pivot in the Pacific, where the U.S. anticipates growing its naval presence to reassure allies and stem the rise of China in the region.
But Obama’s emergence as a commander-in-chief willing to escalate the use of drones against enemies in Afghanistan and even Pakistan have all but stripped the Republican party of its long-held image as the hawk when it comes to war.
Obama’s decision to go ahead with military commission prosecution of detainees still being held at Guantanamo Bay, meanwhile, has also taken away what would have been a GOP argument against the President.
That may be one reason Romney has made it a point to claim he would be more forceful in his defense of Israel when it comes to dealing with Iran over its alleged nuclear program, according to Benjamin Wittes, senior fellow in governance studies at Brookings.
“I think it’s very important for Romney to create differences around that issue,” Wittes said. “It gives him a way of talking to certain domestic constituencies.”
Though most Jewish Americans vote Democrat, Romney’s hope is to reduce the margin of Obama’s vote among Jews, according to Wittes.
“But also,” he said, “Israel has an independent appeal to a lot of very conservative voters irrespective of whether they’re Jewish.”