A feisty Barack President Obama hit Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s call for increased military spending and a larger Navy — and also offered a curious promise that a pending round of Pentagon spending cuts will not happen.
In the duo’s third and final debate of the campaign season on Oct. 22, matters of military budgeting and force structure bubbled to the surface. The candidates sparred several times over those issues, including exchanges that underscored their visions of how the military plays a role in U.S. foreign policy.
Romney was criticized for months by Republicans and Democrats alike in defense circles for what they agreed was his vague foreign and national security policy vision. But, as the final debate made clear, the GOP nominee believes a large American military makes the world’s lone superpower even more powerful.
Unless Congress passes a $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction package before Dec. 31, twin $500 billion cuts to planned national defense and domestic spending will occur over the next 10 years. Any defense cuts, in Romney’s view, would make “our future less certain and less secure.”
“We’ve got to strengthen our military long-term. We don’t know what the world is going to throw at us down the road,” Romney said. “We have to make decisions based upon uncertainty, and that means a strong military. I will not cut our military budget.”
Romney’s vision is similar to former Republican President Ronald Reagan’s “peace through strength” strategy.
The GOP nominee has vowed, if elected, to field a larger Navy. He returned to that plan during the debate, but Obama was ready with a counterpunch.
“Our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917. The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission,” Romney said. “We’re now at under 285. We’re headed down to the low 200s if we go through a sequestration. That’s unacceptable to me.” (Sequestration is the process under which the $500 billion cut would occur.)
Obama responded with a veiled statement about how technology has altered modern warfare.
“You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed,” Obama told his opponent. “We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.
“And so the question is not a game of Battleship, where we’re counting slips,” the president said, referring to the popular board game. “It’s what are our capabilities.”
Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute has written that Romney’s plans to go from building nine U.S. naval ships per year to 15, and his other plans for the Navy Department, would cost “around $200 billion annually by the end of the next presidential term.”
Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, called Obama’s zinger about horses and bayonets “a valid point.”
“You just cannot compare ship counts of today with that of 1916 or 1917,” Harrison said. “The nature of war and technology has changed dramatically.”
Defense insiders and political pundits also were buzzing the morning after the debate about Obama’s bold sequestration line. It raised questions about whether Obama, in uttering the line, lost some bargaining power over GOP lawmakers; talks to avoid the defense cuts will heat up when Congress returns to Washington in early November.
“I don’t think it will hurt the president because I read it more as a prediction, not a promise,” Harrison said. “It’s also consistent with what [Obama] administration officials have been saying for a while, and with what senior Pentagon officials have told me when I’ve pressed them about why they aren’t planning for the sequestration cuts.”
But Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official now with the Center for American Progress, believes the comment will come back to haunt Obama.
“It does undermine the president’s bargaining power because [his then-budget chief] proposed the sequester first,” Korb said. “Now, [in 2011] that was to enhance the president’s bargaining power as that Dec. 31 deadline approached.
“The problem now for Obama is the Republicans can say, if Obama and the Democrats continue insisting on more federal revenues, ‘We won’t accept that because we know you’re really not going to let these defense cuts go through.”’
How congressional efforts to avoid the defense cuts play out remains to be seen. In large part, that will depend on who wins the White House, as well as the results of congressional races.
“The cloud bank of the election,” Harrison said, “is blocking any visibility of a possible deal.”