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The Candidates on Defense Policy

Issue Tracker

Updated: October 31, 2012

Defense spending, which has roughly doubled since 2001, has become embroiled in the debate over the nation's growing debt. The expanding defense budgets over the past ten years reflect the decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as lawmakers' hesitation to be seen as stinting on national defense.

President Barack Obama has sought to end the war in Iraq and accelerate the transition in Afghanistan in part to lower defense costs. He has proposed a number of defense cuts over the next decade and is refocusing defense strategy toward the Asia-Pacific region. GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has criticized the plan to reduce military spending (BostonGlobe), which he has described as a "hollowing out" of the armed forces. More broadly on the campaign trail, the candidates have shown they have philosophical differences over the appropriate use of U.S. military power and the U.S. nuclear posture.

Editor's Note: Click here for more CFR Issue Trackers and other 2012 campaign resources, which examine the foreign policy and national security dimensions of the presidential race.

Barack Obama

Democratic Incumbent, Running Mate Joe Biden

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Obama's presidency has been marked by the winding down of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, rising threats from China and Iran, and reorienting of focus to the Asia-Pacific region. He outlined (NYT) a defense strategy in January 2012 that sought to reflect those priorities, along with the fiscal crisis. "The size and the structure of our military and defense budgets have to be driven by a strategy, not the other way around," Obama said, speaking at the Pentagon January 5, 2012.

In remarks touting the end of the Iraq war on October 21, 2011, Obama said that finishing the combat mission in Iraq by removing all troops by the end of 2011 had been one of his "highest national security priorities." He also has accelerated the transition to a security assistance role in Afghanistan, with combat missions ending in mid-2013.

Obama has been critical of the size and rapid growth of the defense budget over the last decade. His most recent budget proposes slowing its growth over the next decade, but not decreasing its overall size.

Obama also sees the Asia-Pacific region as one of strategic military importance, as he noted in November 2011 remarks: "The United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future." Obama has also pursued a number of nuclear nonproliferation initiatives as president, including a New START Treaty with Russia in 2010, ratified in 2011, that reduced both countries' stockpiles. His administration also issued a Nuclear Posture Review Report that included a pledge not to use nuclear weapons against any country in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

A May speech by the White House's top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, opened drone strikes up for election-year debate after he publicly admitted for the first time that the Obama administration has been using unmanned aircraft to hunt and kill terrorists.

President Obama wrote about the importance of the Internet as a battlefield and the new priority of cyber warfare in a July 2012 Wall Street Journal op-ed, saying that with so much of the United States dependent on privately owned computer networks that run power, water, transportation, banking, and communications systems, it is in the best interest of the country to have standards and oversight that protect them.

In his convention speech in September, Obama connected what he said is a commitment to the military with his jobs message. "[S]o long as I'm commander-in-chief, we will sustain the strongest military the world has ever known," he said. "When you take off the uniform, we will serve you as well as you've served us--because no one who fights for this country should have to fight for a job, or a roof over their head, or the care that they need when they come home."

In the second presidential debate in October, Obama repeated his criticism of Romney's plan to increase defense spending, saying that the additional funding isn't even being asked for by the military.

In the third presidential debate, held in Boca Raton, Florida on October 22, Obama countered Romney's criticism of his proposed defense budget by saying that it maintains military spending, and does not reduce it.

Mitt Romney

Republican Candidate, Running Mate Paul Ryan

In a post about national defense on his campaign website, the Romney campaign proposed increased defense spending that would return the military to a budget baseline established in 2010, with the goal of setting core defense funding at a minimum 4 percent of GDP. In a January 2012 debate, Romney said, "It is absolutely wrong to balance our budget on the backs of our military. We need a strong military, so strong no one in the world would ever think of testing it."

In conjunction with that increase, Romney would pare down the Defense Department's civilian staff. His website post stated that since 2000, the "Pentagon's civilian staff grew by 20 percent while our active duty fighting force grew by only 3.4 percent. That imbalance needs to be rectified."

Romney said he would also boost infrastructure, including increasing the Navy's shipbuilding rate from nine per year to approximately fifteen per year, as well as "commit to a robust, multi-layered national ballistic-missile defense system to deter and defend against nuclear attacks on our homeland and our allies." He also said he would seek to pass on-time budgets to allow the Defense Department and contractors to plan multi-year projects without delay and disruption.

At a GOP presidential debate in December 2011, Romney said he wanted to modernize the Air Force and add 100,000 new additional troops. "It is time for us to recognize once again a strong military does not create war. A strong America prevents people from trying to test us around the world," he said. During another Republican primary debate, Romney touched on drone warfare, saying he was comfortable using drones to hunt terrorists in Pakistan, in part because that the United States had established the proper agreements to do so. Romney also admonished the Obama administration for not retrieving a downed drone in Iran, and instead asking Tehran to give it back.

In a May op-ed in the Chicago Tribune, Romney criticized President Obama's intention to cut U.S. military spending, noting the possible impact that could have for NATO. "With the United States on a path to a hollow military, we are hardly in a position to exercise leadership in persuading our allies to spend more on security," Romney wrote, saying he would work closely with partners to bolster NATO. "I will not allow runaway entitlement spending to swallow the defense budget as has happened in Europe and as President Obama is now allowing here."

In a July speech to veterans, Romney again criticized defense spending cuts. "We are just months away from an arbitrary, across-the-board budget reduction that would saddle the military with a trillion dollars in cuts, severely shrink our force structure, and impair our ability to meet and deter threats," he said. "Don't bother trying to find a serious military rationale behind any of this, unless that rationale is wishful thinking."

In a speech to veterans at the American Legion convention in August 2012, Romney again criticized pending military cuts, saying it would not only hurt jobs, but would "further stress on an already stretched VA system and impair our solemn commitment that every veteran receives care second to none." He followed up those remarks in September, telling Ohio voters Monday that sequestration could be devastating (WashTimes).

In a speech on foreign policy in October, Romney hit again on defense cuts. "I will make the critical defense investments that we need to remain secure," he said. "The decisions we make today will determine our ability to protect America tomorrow. The first purpose of a strong military is to prevent war." He said he would not cut defense spending and will instead make "the critical defense investments that we need to remain secure."

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