Policy Demons Haunt Presidential Campaigns

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When it comes to their competing views on national security and foreign policy, the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney campaigns agree that they have much in common in what they want for America in the world, but they totally disagree on how to achieve it.

President Obama has offered sobriety, discretion and a balanced approach to achieving U.S. goals, according to campaign advocate Richard Verma. Former Gov. Mitt Romney would pursue “peace through strength” and bring pragmatic-but-effective business acumen to adversaries from Pennsylvania Avenue to Persia, says Romney-backer Dov Zakheim.

Yet, in a public debate in Washington this week, these two advisers touched on – but did not address – another key similarity between the two campaigns: both are haunted by the inevitable extrapolations of their approaches to national security and foreign policy.

Verma says Obama has had to make tough calls, and did, including cutting the growth of defense spending to help ensure U.S. economic security. But at a time when both sides agree the world is becoming more complex and even more dangerous, such an approach invariably means accepting more risk in the places where resources are not expended to pursue solutions. Why accept more risk at the same time the world is more dangerous?

For Romney’s part, he faces his own dilemma. Zakheim argues that budget cutbacks signal weakness, and weakness invites threats and attacks by foreign adversaries. But that means that not only does the defense budget have to keep growing, it likely has to grow exponentially year-after-year to convince adversaries that the U.S. remains just as serious. How can that be sustainable, even if all federal entitlement and non-defense spending is sacrificed in the meantime?

No matter who wins the presidential election next month, look for the winning side to wrestle with its own demons.

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