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A look ahead at the debate on defense policies

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Mitt Romney and President Obama previewed last week some of what might occur on Oct. 22 when they debate defense policies at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.

Romney, who oddly avoided that subject in his acceptance speech before the Republican National Convention last Thursday, discussed defense issues the day before at the American Legion convention in Indianapolis.

Obama, who is bound to discuss his foreign policy and defense record Thursday night, laid out many of his ideas Friday, in what was a “nonpolitical” appearance before troops at Fort Bliss, Tex. The president tied his talk to one he gave there two years ago marking the end of major combat operations in Iraq. Not surprisingly, he also dealt with some of the same defense and veteran issues as Romney.

Romney hit the GOP’s major defense budget talking point: “The Obama administration is set to cut defense spending by nearly a trillion dollars. My administration will not.”

This is a conflated reference to two elements growing out of the bipartisan Budget Control Act (BCA) that Congress approved in August 2011. One part, a $487 billion reduction in planned defense spending increases over the next 10 years, has already been built into the fiscal 2013 defense budget before Congress.

The next $500 billion cut would take effect, as required under the BCA, as part of the broader so-called sequester or 10-year, across-the-board reduction that would begin Jan. 3 if Congress does not adopt a deficit reduction plan or some other bill after the election.

Romney added, “There are plenty of places to cut in a federal budget that now totals well over $3 trillion, but defense is not one of them.“ He did not refer to his costly proposals to end Obama’s planned reductions in troop levels and instead increase levels by 100,000.

Obama picked up on the defense spending issue, saying at Fort Bliss: “Last year, you know, Congress pledged to find a plan to reduce the deficit, and they said if they couldn’t agree, there’d be big cuts across the board, including defense.” He distanced himself from the possible $500 billion sequester threat, saying that “there’s no reason those cuts should happen.”

He returned to one of his favorite themes: “Folks in Congress ought to come together and agree on a responsible plan that reduces the deficit and keeps our military strong.”

Before the American Legion, Romney spoke of a still dangerous world: Iran “drawing close to nuclear weapons capability”; the “radical Islamic terrorism threat” persisting “despite the welcome removal of Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders”; and instability in Pakistan, violence in Syria and North Korea’s nuclear threat.

On the war in Afghanistan, he said, “We still have uniformed men and women in conflict risking their lives.” He did not mention what he would do there, although he raised another GOP theme: “For the past four years President Obama has allowed our leadership to diminish.”

Obama’s response: “If you hear anyone trying to say that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, don’t you believe it, because here’s the truth: Our alliances have never been stronger.” He had already noted U.S. combat forces having left Iraq; the coming with­drawals from Afghanistan; and al-Qaeda as “on the road to defeat, and bin Laden will never again threaten the United States.”

“When people are asked, which country do you admire most, one nation always comes out on top: the United States of America,” the president said.

Romney made these specific promises to the veterans: He would cut the backlog of Veterans Affairs disability claims; address the shortage of VA mental health care providers; modify the post-9/11 GI Bill so any vet would be eligible for lower in-state tuitions; and work with states to make it easier for veterans to enter skilled trades. He also said, “The well-being of our veterans depends on our ability to make sure they can find good jobs when they come home.”

At Fort Bliss, the president talked of plans to increase the numbers working mental health crisis hotlines and add more counselors and providers. He, too, promised helping the troops and their families to pursue “education under the post-9/11 GI Bill,” programs underway to hire new veterans for federal and local government jobs, and the tax credit for businesses that hire vets. Topping Romney’s message, Obama said last week that his wife, Michelle, announced companies had hired 125,000 veterans, exceeding the 100,000 goal.

He added the government already was making it easier for veterans “to transfer . . . military skills to the licenses and credentials that you need to get that civilian job.”

These are politically driven issues and not the basic defense questions that will face the White House after Jan. 20.

Here’s the question I would put to Obama and Romney: If the need arises again to send American forces to fight abroad, would you get authorization from Congress and a special tax to pay for those operations?

That would mean more than 1 percent of the American people would be involved in the undertaking.

I’ll be listening on Oct. 22.

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