Romney’s National-Security Problem
It appears some Republicans want to return to their familiar national-security playbook in their pursuit of the White House, accusing a Democratic president of gutting defense spending and undermining national security. An Associated Press story predicts that Mitt Romney's presidential campaign may feature the “hawkish and often unilateral foreign policy prescriptions that guided Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.” But the calls from Republican operatives and GOP hawks for Romney to slam Obama for cutting the military and drawing down in Afghanistan are hollow. Focusing on national security isn’t likely to score Romney any political points. To the extent that foreign policy matters in this election, Romney’s policies are both misguided and at odds with what the American people want.
For one thing, Romney’s prescriptions for Afghanistan aren’t so different from Barack Obama's; where they are different, they are politically unpopular. From Wednesday's New York Times:
For Mr. Romney, the evolving politics of the Afghan conflict suggest that he “wouldn’t get a lot of juice for making the argument to stay,” said Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University. “The problem he’s got is, how he can criticize the president by adopting a policy remarkably similar to the president. He’s obviously got to criticize him, but he doesn’t have that much to work with.”
But the problem extends beyond Afghanistan. The more Romney talks about “staying the course” in an unpopular war, the more he sounds like the last GOP presidential nominee. John McCain’s campaign boast that he would rather lose an election than lose a war should haunt the party: he delivered neither a political victory for Republicans nor a military victory in Iraq. Romney’s embrace of the Afghan quagmire could seal the GOP’s fate as the party that happily defies the wishes of the American people in order to fight costly and interminable nation-building missions in distant lands.
On defense spending, Romney’s approach has been “Fire. Ready. Aim.” He has accused Obama of shortchanging the military, and he pledges to spend at least 4 percent of the nation’s GDP on the Pentagon’s base budget, a promise that would bring spending to levels unprecedented since the end of World War II. Romney has yet to spell out what other spending he would cut, or what taxes he would increase, in order to make up what I estimate to be $2.5 trillion in additional spending over the next decade. Or he could just add to the deficit, as George W. Bush did. Team Obama would be smart to press Romney for clarification.
But Obama himself is to blame for misleading the public about military spending. Although he boasts of having cut $487 billion from the Pentagon’s budget over the next decade, his budget submission for FY 2013 represented only a slight decline from the previous year and is still above the average during the Bush years. If Obama gets his way, the Pentagon’s budget will rise to near-historic highs again by the end of the decade. (For more on this, see here.)
Therefore, far from believing that Obama has gone too far in cutting military spending, as Romney contends, many Americans believe that the cuts could go much deeper. That is the takeaway from Yochi Dreazen’s story in this week’s National Journal. Noting that we have the biggest and second-biggest air forces in the world (the air force and the navy, respectively) and eleven aircraft carriers to China’s one (which isn't exactly state of the art), Dreazen quotes an exasperated T.X. Hammes, a professor at the National Defense University, and a thirty-year Marine veteran, “the services keep saying that we need to be big. What’s the justification? Based on what threat? I’m just not sure I see the logic.”
A companion story at NJ by George E. Condon Jr. shows that Hammes isn’t alone. A recent Gallup poll found that 41 percent of Americans think we spend too much on the military, as opposed to just 24 percent who think we don't spend enough. It is that latter segment of the population, presumably, that Romney has locked up with his four percent promise. But it is hard to see how his stance will win over the war-weary public that isn’t anxious to repeat our Iraq and Afghanistan adventures and that isn’t looking to boost military spending, either.