Rethinking Seminar Readout

JHU/APL Rethinking Seminar, which hosted a presentation by Dr. Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institute to discuss the Foreign Policy and National Security Policy Strategies of the Presidential Candidates. With the approaching end of a seeming eternal election, I found it a helpful way to view their positions in light of what it may mean to us here. (Notes taken by the notetaker do not indicate an endorsement or advisor role to either Presidential candidate).

Below is a read-out of his comments:

Key Take-away: MH believes that the candidates, despite their rhetoric, are the closest on foreign policy than any other candidates in any Presidential election he has seen in his lifetime.

MH discussed his perception of the candidates’ views through three large themes:

1. Defense budgets
2. Specific weapons, force posture, etc.
3. Use of Force (Syria, Afghanistan, Iran)

1. Defense Budgets

MH started by highlighting a debate line Obama has used in the two debates: “Mitt Romney will spend 2 trillion more on defense than the Generals have asked for.” MH notes that there are quite a few assumptions to get there, each of which can be debated, and that he thinks the real 10 year funding difference is 400 to 600 billion, not 2 trillion.

Both candidates are against sequestration. Obama is in favor of the first tranche of cuts made under Secretary Gates. When Romney says he will reserve cuts, MH assumes he means these cuts.

However, on Romney’s website, someone in his campaign convinced him to link spending to 4% of GDP, while Obama’s plan will go to 3% of GDP by mid-decade. That difference explains a good deal of the 2 trillion number over the 10 year period. MH notes that Romney describes that link as “aspirational”, which MH interprets as, it will happen only if every other budget problem is solved. I.e., not likely.

MH notes that Obama took some liberties in the comparison, as he is comparing base budget – not including OCO – to Romney’s budget, and that trick alone would take approximately 500 billion off the difference.

However, likely for political posturing, so far both Romney and Obama are content to let the general assumptions and the 2 trillion difference stand without challenge.

MH then addressed what happens if they win and they now have to meet reality on Capitol Hill. If Obama wins, MH believes he will still face a divided Congress and that Obama is willing to hit the fiscal cliff. It will allow him a clean plate, as taxes will go up on their own and allow moderate Republicans to compromise for a future reduction. Obama will go to the public to try to force the issue for a long term solution, building on the mandate he just won. He would accept above and beyond the initial round of cuts under Gates, but less than sequestration – likely around an additional 100 billion over 10 years. MH thinks that’s a pretty good deal, given the cuts that will also be hitting domestic programs, and that something around that number is a good spot for Defense to be in.

If Romney wins, he’ll likely reverse some of the cuts, but if Dems still control Senate he can’t push too hard on defense if he hopes to make movement on other deficit issues. He’ll not want to reverse all of the Bush cuts, but likely will reverse some in order to deal the with the deficit.

MH’s bottom point? Rhetorically, not a tremendous difference between the two – and when they govern, probably even less.

2. Specific weapons, force posture

We have more information to go on from Obama, with the latest winter plan that came from the Defense Department. But even that is somewhat aspirational, as it talks about using 60 B in efficiencies to address the budget cuts under Gates. MH notes that efficiencies are built up to save more than they end up doing, and it assumes that no weapon systems will grow in cost (i.e. F35 has no cost growth). The FYDP is always underfunded. So Obama is going to have a tough time to just get to the original $487 billion in cuts, and MH questions if the cut to ground forces is sufficiently austere, given that the Army and USMC will remain larger than they did during the mid-90s. MH notes that weapon systems cuts under Obama were negligible, and modernization remained mostly untouched. He is dubious that it can’t be forced more.

Romney has stated he wants a bigger navy, larger ground force, and larger carrier presence in the Middle East. While Romney wants to get tough on China, interestingly he does not seem to frame that through a military lens but an economic one. He has avoided incendiary remarks on China in terms of defense issues, which MH think is probably a good strategy. Mostly Romney talks about ME, but even his carrier pledge isn’t that different from Obama, where presence has around 1.6/1.7 verse Romney going to 2.0.

In terms of missile defense, perhaps a difference but not a lot of specifics. MH did note that Romney was adamantly opposed to New START, in contrast to much of the GOP establishment, and it’s likely that Romney would not be too enthusiastic about another round. But Putin doesn’t seem to be thrilled about it either. MH believes (and just wrote a book on this) that there’s an argument to be made on how both sides would benefit, but isn’t sure it has much movement for either candidate – although Obama was caught on mic with Medvedev stating he would have more flexibility after the election.

MH believes that while they are not trivial differences, they are not big differences. Certainly not compared to a Nixon/McGovern election. He states that here, again, there is less difference in positions than the candidates are trying to make it seem.

3. Use of Force

a) Syria

Over the summer a Romney advisor suggested that if Romney wins, he would arm the opposition. MH said that while this isn’t very dramatic (it’s been a standard American tactic over the centuries and a legitimate tactic to be debated), the Romney campaign was uncomfortable being that far from Obama’s current position and pulled back. MH stated that because differences were modest, it doesn’t mean they are not important, but after a decade of intervention we are talking about a very narrow difference of opinions.

His guess is over time, each candidate would be pushed to do more in Syria than they are currently doing or saying.

b) Afghanistan

The biggest difference between the candidates is Biden’s statement at the VP debate that we will be gone in 2014, and that’s just not true when compared to Obama’s position. But MH notes that it’s probably a nice political argument during election season for a war weary populace.

Romney has not been inclined to take Allen’s testimony to commit to 68,000 troops. He said he’ll listen to his generals, but he didn’t tie his hands saying he will implement what he heard. MH thought that Obama might have already begun the drawdown prior to the election, but he is relieved and impressed that he has not.

MH believes that here, also, there is not much difference between the two.

c) Iran

MH notes that if we went to war with Iran, it’d be the largest enemy since 1952. Not trivial. But barely a difference between the candidates’ positions. Obama has said containment is not an option, and used the active “we” will not allow it. Romney, in Israel, said he would not interfere with Israel’s right to defend itself, but did not propose that the US conduct a pre-emptive strike at that time.

MH believes that either would probably agree to some sort of compromise with Iran over enrichment levels to prevent development of nuclear weapon.

**Concluding line from MH: I think I might have to choose the next President on econ/domestic policy, as these two are pretty darn close on things in the foreign policy establishment**

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