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The Candidates on Defense Policy

September 3, 2008

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Issue Trackers trace the positions of candidates from the 2008 presidential campaign on major issues related to foreign policy.

For most of its time in office, the Bush administration has sought to “transform” the United States military into a smaller, more mobile force able to be deployed quickly to the kinds of small wars defense planners expected to face prior to September 11, 2001. Even after those attacks, the administration, led primarily by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, persisted in the belief that future wars required intense investment in high-technology weaponry which could only be sustained by reducing the military’s largest and most intractable budget line: personnel. This focus on a “capabilities-based” approach (Word doc) informed much of the military strategy applied during the Afghanistan war, and, in retrospect, laid the foundation for the enormous problems that followed the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003.

But in 2006, as public support for the conflict plummeted, Bush turned away from the idea that a smaller military would best serve the nation’s needs. In replacing Rumsfeld late that year, Bush also green-lighted an expansion of the army. While public attention focused primarily on Iraq policy—the so-called “surge” of roughly twenty thousand troops to the battlefront—the far more important development involved an admission that the army itself had been undermanned and required additional reinforcements (BosGlobe). Thus, the Iraq and Afghan wars aside, a series of complex defense policy decisions will face the next president—and, by association, those who seek the office.

Democratic Ticket on Defense Policy

Barack Obama
Democratic Party Nominee - President

Obama has called for U.S. military expansion and restructuring. In an April 2007 speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Obama advocated the expansion of the military to include an additional sixty-five thousand army soldiers and twenty-seven thousand marines. He also called for an increase in the number of Arabic speakers in the military.

In Obama's 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, he wrote, "It's time we acknowledge that a defense budget and force structure built principally around the prospect of World War III makes little strategic sense."

As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Obama introduced the Cooperative Proliferation Detection, Interdiction Assistance, and Conventional Threat Reduction Act of 2006. That act, which was incorporated into the Department of State Authorities Act of 2006 and signed into law, allows for the destruction of surplus and unsecured weapons, which Obama said "make attractive targets for terrorists."

In October 2007, Obama said private security contractors like Blackwater USA should not be "rogue militia, roaming the country shooting without justification and without consequences." He called for increased accountability for contractors and wrote in an Chicago Sun-Times op-ed. that U.S. "national interests are threatened when these companies act on the country's behalf without having to answer to Americans. Instead of winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis, we've made them angry and possibly fueled support for the counterinsurgency that is keeping us stuck in Iraq."

In May 2008, Obama voted in favor of an amendment to expand the veterans' benefits program (WashPost). That bill, which will increase education benefits for soldiers who served in Iraq, passed. Obama has also called for the expansion of military health coverage to include "proven treatment" for soldiers suffering from a traumatic brain injury (TBI). In an August 2008 letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Obama expressed concern that "one of the most widely accepted and critical rehabilitative treatments for this injury, known as cognitive rehabilitation therapy, is excluded by the military's TRICARE health insurance program." Obama praised the Senate in September 2008 for passing the Defense Authorization Bill, which he said would ensure that U.S. "service members and veterans have access to the health care and support they need whether in combat or at home." But Obama criticized Republicans for blocking a measure he cosponsored to provide suicide prevention programs throughout the military.

As Obama was elected to the Senate in 2004, he does not have a voting record on military operations in the Gulf War, Kosovo, or in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. He has been critical of the war in Iraq, but was not yet in office at the time that the 2002 Iraq War resolution was passed.

Click here for this candidate's position on other top foreign policy issues.

Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Democratic Party Nominee - Vice President

Sen. Biden (D-DE), the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, has warned that the "increasing dominance of the military in our foreign policy may inadvertently limit our options – when the military is the most readily available option, it is more likely to be used, whether or not it is the best choice."

"We have to change the complexion of this force structure [in Iraq], so we don't become an Algeria figure like the French did, liberate and then occupy. We don't want to be the occupiers," Biden said in 2003.

In 1999, Biden opposed the National Missile Defense Act, which would have allowed deployment of an unproven, as yet undeveloped National Missile Defense system intended to defend the country against missile attacks. Biden said that bill, which was never passed, was "a political document, not a substantive piece of legislation that adds anything to the concept of what our strategic doctrine should be."

Biden did later support the Moscow Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reductions, which the U.S. and Russia both ratified. That treaty stipulates that the U.S. and Russia must reduce their strategic nuclear warheads to between 1700 and 2200 warheads by 2012, a move which, Biden said, "will move us further away from the Cold War era. "

In 1999, Biden and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) cosponsored a bill to authorize the president to use "all necessary force" in the Kosovo conflict. In 2003, Biden voted in favor of the appropriation of $87 billion to fund military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Click here for this candidate's position on other top foreign policy issues.

Republican Ticket on Defense Policy

John McCain
Republican Party Nominee - President

Sen. McCain (R-AZ), a former navy pilot, has been one of the most outspoken voices in Congress on defense issues. McCain favors an increase in the size of the U.S. military, especially the Army and Marine Corps. McCain also says the United States needs "a new mix of military forces, including civil affairs, special operations, and highly mobile forces capable of fighting and prevailing in the conflicts America faces."

McCain has also backed national missile defense program development. He has generally supported "modernizing" the armed forces and U.S. weapons technology.

In December 2007, McCain praised provisions in a conference report accompanying the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act for pay raises for military personnel and for an increase in "Army and Marine end-strength." Still, he said, he would not sign the conference report due to its inclusion of $5.3 billion in earmarks. Primarily, McCain criticized the provision in the report of $2.28 billion to purchase eight C-17 Globemaster aircraft, which, McCain said, "the Defense Department states we neither need nor can afford."

McCain voted in favor of the 1999 Kosovo Resolution authorizing air and missile strikes on Serbia and Montenegro.

McCain expressed support for the provision in the 2007 Defense Appropriations Act that would "require regular budgeting for the ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan," as opposed to the supplemental funding bills that have characterized the war on terror. He voted in favor of the Military Construction Fiscal Year 2005 Authorization Bill, which granted hundreds of billions of dollars to the Department of Defense for military and national security operations. At the time, he said that the funding was necessary to increase force levels of the military, not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but on the whole.

McCain opposed a Senate amendment passed in May 2008 to expand education benefits for Iraq veterans. He expressed concern that the bill could reduce military retention rates. "Encouraging people not to choose to become noncommissioned officers would hurt the military and our country very badly," McCain said, explaining his opposition to the bill. With Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), McCain cosponsored an alternative bill, which he says will include a "sliding scale that offers generous benefits to all veterans, but increases those benefits according to the veteran's length of service."

Click here for this candidate's position on other top foreign policy issues.

Democratic Primary Candidates on Defense Policy

Hillary Rodham Clinton
Democratic Primary Candidate

Sen. Clinton (D-NY) sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee. In 2003, Clinton criticized the structure of forces in Iraq, saying that there was not the “right mix of troops” to succeed. Her main grievance at the time was a shortage of U.S. troops (Scotsman). That year, she also said more troops were needed in Afghanistan. “What the force structure (BosGlobe) is and where it comes from I'll leave to others to decide,” she said.

In 2006, Clinton said in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, “I’ve joined with other Democrats and Republicans in proposing that we expand the army by eighty thousand troops, that we move faster to expand the Special Forces, and do a better job of training and equipping the National Guard and Reserves.”

In February 2008, Clinton cosponsored legislation to ban the use of private security contracting firms like Blackwater in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Clinton was one of six Democrats in 2004 to oppose blocking the national missile defense system, USA Today reported. In 2006, Clinton cosponsored a bill to alter the National Guard force structure, citing its lack of resources and its deployment overseas even though it is meant to be “America’s militia.” Clinton famously voted to approve the war in Iraq in 2002 and voted in favor of the $87 billion appropriation for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003.

In February 2008, Clinton expressed concern over reports that troops may have received deficient Kevlar helmets. In a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Clinton requested that the Pentagon provide information regarding the efforts of the Department of Defense to investigate the allegations regarding that equipment. "We have a solemn obligation to provide our brave men and women in uniform with the finest equipment available, particularly when they are being sent into harm’s way," she wrote.

In May 2008, Clinton voted in favor of an amendment to expand the veterans' benefits program (WashPost). That bill, which  increased education benefits for soldiers who served in Iraq, passed.

Editor's Note: Sen. Clinton withdrew her candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on June 7, 2008.

Click here for this candidate's position on other top foreign policy issues.

Christopher J. Dodd
Democratic Primary Candidate

In an April 2007 speech, Sen. Dodd (D-CT) said that if elected, he would “reorient our defense budget to reflect national security priorities, expanding the size of our army and Marine Corps and investing in critical defense infrastructure.”

In 2006, Dodd and fellow Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman (ID-CT) supported the 2007 Defense Appropriations Bill, which provided billions of dollars in funds for the United States to expand its arsenal and research and purchase weaponry including new submarines, helicopters, fighter jets, and radar. Dodd has warned that increased submarine production is needed if the United States is to avoid “being overtaken by China” (Foster’s). Dodd’s Connecticut district includes the Groton Naval Submarine Base, which is now slated to be closed.

In 1999, Dodd cosponsored the Biden/McCain bill that would have expanded the president’s powers with respect to managing the conflict in Yugoslavia. Dodd voted in favor of the 2002 resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq. In 2003, Dodd voted to grant the $87 billion in funding to military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and introduced an amendment to the bill that would “transfer $300 million from Iraqi reconstruction funds to U.S. Army accounts for the purchase of equipment vital to the safety of our troops or to reimburse them for equipment they were forced to buy for themselves,” he said in a speech in the Senate at the time.

Editor's Note: Sen. Dodd withdrew his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 3, 2008.

Click here for this candidate's position on other top foreign policy issues.

John Edwards
Democratic Primary Candidate

Edwards was described in the Washington Post in 2004 as having “staked out a centrist and occasionally hawkish policy” on national security issues. During the 2004 campaign, Edwards expressed support for the development of a missile defense program, but, he said, funding for such a system should be reduced. Since the last campaign, however, Edwards has revamped his stance on defense policy, becoming increasingly critical of U.S.military operations abroad.

In a May 2007 speech at the Council on Foreign Relations on military policy, Edwards criticized the Bush administration's preemptive war doctrine, saying that if elected, he would “only use offensive force after all other options including diplomacy have been exhausted.”

Unlike many of his fellow candidates, Edwards declined to recommend any specific increase in force levels because he said calling for a precise number of additional troops would be arbitrary.

Edwards also proposes a 10,000-strong “Marshall Corps” of professional civilians who would be deployed to stabilize nations after international interventions, and a reexamination of the use of private military contractors in security roles abroad.

Edwards voted for the National Missile Defense Act of 1999. During the campaign before the 2004 presidential election, however, CNN reported that Edwards “says [national missile defense] should not be first priority in WMD proliferation.”

Edward voted in favor of the 2002 resolution authorizing the war in Iraq, but has since apologized for that decision (AP). He also voted against the 2003 bill granting $87 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In his CFR speech, he said: "The U.S. must retain sufficient forces in the region to prevent a genocide, deter a regional spillover of the civil war, and prevent an Al Qaeda safe haven. We will most likely need to retain Quick Reaction Forces in Kuwait and in the Persian Gulf. We will also need some presence in Baghdad, inside the Green Zone, to protect the American Embassy and other personnel."

Editor's note: Edwards dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination on January 30, 2008.

Click here for this candidate's position on other top foreign policy issues.

Mike Gravel
Democratic Primary Candidate

In 1971, then-Senator Gravel (D-AK) filibustered legislation to renew the military draft. In the early 1970s, Gravel fought to end tests of obsolete nuclear weapons in the North Pacific around Alaska that were damaging to the environment. In this video, Gravel warns against the growth of the military-industrial complex, saying “our militarized economy is both a direct cost to the American taxpayer and an indirect cost in what is lost in funding for education, health care, and our infrastructure.”

Editor's Note: Mike Gravel ended his bid for the Democraticnomination on March 26, 2008. He then ran for the LibertarianParty's presidential nomination before announcing the end ofhis political career on May 25, 2008.

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Dennis Kucinich
Democratic Primary Candidate

Rep. Kucinich (D-OH) has been a prominent critic of the Bush defense agenda. He voted against every major Defense Department authorization bill since he was first elected in 1996. He also opposed the resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq. He has argued that the new weapons developed by the United States are not appropriate in the current wars. He cited the U.S. acquisition of the F-22 fighter jet as one example, saying it is “an expensive Cold War jet fighter that is only a modest improvement over the F-15. Yet, in every conflict since 1990 we have quickly achieved air superiority. Al-Qaeda lacks hard targets and is not threatened by the F-22.”

Kucinich said of the National Missile Defense system: It is “extremely expensive, has inherent technological flaws that will make it impossible to work as promised, would have a destructive impact on nuclear nonproliferation and accompanying treaties, and would have a destabilizing effect on U.S. relations with allies worldwide.”

In reference to the 2007 National Defense Authorization Act, Kucinich said “The defense-industrial complex follows a misguided strategy of buying weapons that provide Americans with no increased safety; buying ever more expensive fighter jets, massive naval ships, and a missile defense system that provides no additional protection for our nation.”

Editor's Note: Rep. Kucinich withdrew his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 25, 2008.

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Bill Richardson
Democratic Primary Candidate

If elected, Richardson plans to reduce Pentagon defense spending by $57 billion. In October 2007, Richardson criticized current U.S. defense policy for "wasting billions of dollars on Cold War weapons systems designed to fight a long extinct Soviet empire." Richardson also proposed the creation of a civil affairs military personnel to "bridge the gap between soldiers and civilians."

Richardson criticized the 2000 Defense Authorization Bill because, as energy secretary at the time, he objected to the reorganization of the nuclear weapons division of the Department of Defense. That reorganization included the creation of a new, semiautonomous Department of Energy agency that was to oversee U.S. nuclear weapons programs. That bill was passed despite Richardson ’s complaints.

Richardson was an outspoken critic of Rumsfeld’s 2005 Base Realignment and Closure process, citing the loss of an estimated seven thousand jobs in his state of New Mexico as a result of base closures (PDF). As a New Mexico congressman in 1991, Richardson voted against the Gulf War, a move which he later said he regretted (Albuquerque Journal). He has spoken out against the current Iraq war, however, and has called for an immediate withdrawal of all troops.

Editor's Note: Richardson withdrew his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 10, 2008.

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Republican Primary Candidates on Defense Policy

James S. Gilmore
Republican Primary Candidate

From 1999 to 2003, Jim Gilmore headed the Gilmore Commission, a congressionally created advisory panel on terrorism-related issues. The panel issued a series of reports on everything from combating cybercrime to intelligence sharing among local authorities. The commission’s third of five reports urges the involvement of the defense department in establishing a clear chain of command to provide support to civil authorities in the event of terrorism, natural disasters or civil disturbances.

Editor's note: Gilmore withdrew his candidacy for the Republican nomination in July 2007.

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Rudy Giuliani
Republican Primary Candidate

Giuliani has generally supported the Bush administration’s policies in response to the threat of terrorism. He has called for an “offense-as-a-defense” (Journal-Register) strategy towards al-Qaeda, backing the U.S. troop surge and continued presence in Iraq.

Giuliani advocates the addition of thirty-five thousand troops to the army’s current level of 512,000 (AP).

In a September 2007 Foreign Affairs article, Giuliani said the United States should pursue a nuclear missile defense system, as "America can no longer rely on Cold War doctrines such as 'mutual assured destruction' in the face of threats from hostile, unstable regimes."

His stance on weapons spending is unknown.

Editor's note: Giuliani dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on January 31, 2008.

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Mike Huckabee
Republican Primary Candidate

Huckabee says the United States must add about 92,000 troops to the Army in the next two to three years, though he has not indicated how he determined that number or timeframe. In a January 2008 Foreign Affairs essay, Huckabee said the United States should spend six percent of its GDP on defense.

Editor's Note: Huckabee withdrew his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on March 4, 2008.

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Duncan Hunter
Republican Primary Candidate

Rep. Hunter (R-CA), who serves on the House Armed Services Committee and was its chairman from 2003 to 2007, prepared a Special Report in 2002 for President Bush that outlined a plan for modernization of the military. That plan argued that a drastic increase in military funding was needed for more personnel, “readiness funds,” and additional ammunition and precision guided missiles, among other things. In 2003, Hunter said, “The growing demands that stretched our forces so thin during the 1990s have simply exploded. Yet, our currently deployed force structure has not kept pace…the demands for American force projection in a dangerous world compel us to look seriously at boosting the current force structure, now down to ten army divisions, thirteen tactical air wings and 306 ships.”

Hunter voted in favor of the 1999 House resolution to send U.S. troops to join the NATO peacekeeping force (PDF) in Kosovo.

Editor's note: Hunter dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on January 19, 2008.

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Ron Paul
Republican Primary Candidate

Rep. Paul (R-TX), a noninterventionist with libertarian views, voted against the 1999 resolution that sent U.S. troops to join NATO peacekeeping forces in Kosovo. He also voted against the resolution authorizing air strikes on Yugoslavia in 1999. That resolution failed in the House. In 2003, Paul voted against the 2003 resolution for the reconstruction of Iraq.

Editor's Note: Rep. Paul withdrew his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on June 12, 2008.

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Mitt Romney
Republican Primary Candidate

Romney has said that the U.S. military must be bolstered, and in April 2007 he called for an increase in military size by one hundred thousand troops. He also said the United States must dedicate at least 4 percent of its gross domestic product to defense, thus "making up for critical gaps in our military modernization, equipment, personnel, and health care efforts." Romney says the United States should spend an additional $40 billion to $50 billion per year on military modernization.

The Air National Guard (ANG) established a new ground station unit in Massachusetts during Romney's governorship there. That ANG expansion was intended to "provide force structure in Massachusetts that both supports Air Force missions and allows Governor Romney to meet homeland defense and security requirements," the Air Force Print News reported.

Editor's note: Romney dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on February 7, 2008.

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Tom Tancredo
Republican Primary Candidate

Rep. Tancredo (R-CO) voted in favor of the National Missile Defense Bill and has generally voted in favor of defense authorization bills appropriating billions to the Defense Department. Tancredo voted against sending U.S. troops to aid the NATO peacekeeping mission in Kosovo in 1999.

Editor's Note: Congressman Tancredo formally withdrew his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination on December 20, 2007.

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Tommy Thompson
Republican Primary Candidate

Tommy Thompson’s stance on defense policy is unknown.

Editor's note: Thompson dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on August 12, 2007.

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Fred Thompson
Republican Primary Candidate

Thompson, like many of his fellow candidates, has called for a “revitalized national defense,” including a massive expansion of the military and increase in defense spending. In November 2007, Thompson proposed upping defense spending to at least 4.5 percent of gross domestic product, “not including what it takes to fund operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.” He also says the United States should build a “million-member” military ground force, including an additional 775,000 Army soldiers in sixty-four combat teams, combined with an increase in active duty Marine Corps forces by 50,000 to 225,000. Thompson says the United States must “field and fund the next generation of military systems to ensure U.S. forces retain dominance in the full battle space.”

Editor's note: Thompson dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on January 22, 2008.

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