Questions for the candidates at the final presidential debate

October 18, 2012

Bob Schieffer, moderator of Monday’s foreign policy debate, should ask President Obama and Mitt Romney to state their beliefs about a president’s power to send U.S. forces to fight without authorization of Congress.

He could follow up on an answer Romney gave him about Iran’s nuclear program on June 17 on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

Schieffer asked Romney about conservative columnist William Kristol’s suggestion that Obama ought to ask Congress for authorization to use military force as a signal of his willingness to use U.S. might to stop Iran from producing a nuclear weapon.

Schieffer: “What’s your take on that?”

Romney’s initial response was political. “This president [Obama] has communicated in some respects that, well, he might even be more worried about Israel taking direct military action than he is about Iran becoming nuclear.”

He went on: “I can assure you if I’m president, the Iranians will have no question but that I would be willing to take military action, if necessary, to prevent them from becoming a nuclear threat to the world.”

That was a fairly clear statement, but what he added could be one of Schieffer’s first questions Monday since it involves his view of presidential war-making powers.

Romney said, “I don’t believe at this stage . . . if I’m president, that we need to have war powers approval or a special authorization for military force. The president has that capacity now.”

Does Romney or Obama believe he could undertake the major attack necessary to hurt Iran’s program without congressional authorization, and without agreement from the United Nations or support from NATO or a group of other allies, including some countries in the region?

U.S. participation in the surprise March 19, 2011, missile and bombing attacks on Libya was done without the specific authorization of Congress.

On March 21, 2011, Obama sent Congress a two-page letter saying that as commander in chief he had constitutional authority to authorize the military operations to prevent a humanitarian disaster. He said it would be limited in duration and noted that the U.N. Security Council had authorized a no-fly zone over Libya, and that the undertaking was done with British, French and Persian Gulf allies. Nineteen days after the strikes began, NATO took over command of the air operations from the U.S. Africa Command.

Does Obama or Romney believe that any military action against Iran would be as limited as the one in Libya? Does either believe that U.S. ground forces could be drawn into battle should Iran or its allies respond with attacks against Israel or other countries?

The president has said he would prevent Iran from “having a nuclear weapon” and has offered assurances that U.S. intelligence would be able to determine when building one had begun.

In his June “Face the Nation” appearance, Romney said he would be willing to use military force, but he did not define what that meant. Recently, he has said he would prevent Iran from having “a nuclear weapons capability,” but what does that mean?

Though the current policy of the United States and its allies rests on a U.N. Security Council resolution that calls for Iran to suspend its activities related to reprocessing uranium, Iran has produced uranium enriched to 20 percent. Enrichment up to 90 percent is considered weapons grade. Most of the enrichment has been up to 6 percent, usable as fuel in electric power reactors.

What solution is required by each candidate for this situation? Do they believe any deal with Tehran requires Israeli approval?

Another, more immediate issue is what to do about U.S. defense spending. It will have to be dealt with in Congress’s lame-duck session no matter who wins the election.

If Congress can’t produce a $1.2 trillion package of budget cuts, revenue increases or both, a provision of the 2011 Budget Control Act will force “sequestration” — across-the-board reductions that will involve about $500 billion in planned Defense Department growth in spending over the next 10 years. It would require about a 9 percent cut in the fiscal 2013 defense budget before Congress.

Obama and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta have called for a balanced package of cuts and revenue increases to avoid sequestration. If reelected, Obama will have the upper hand, because the Bush tax cuts also end on Dec. 31. That’s leverage to bring the GOP to the table.

If Romney wins, chances are that Congress will find a way to put off sequestration and the tax issue until next year. Romney will face the problem of fulfilling his campaign promises to raise defense spending while cutting taxes.

Obama’s defense budget increases by roughly $10 billion a year over the next 10 years, going from $525 billion next year to $634 billion in 2022. Romney’s promised defense budget equaling 4 percent of GDP rises faster, according to a study done for CNN: from $555 billion to $989 billion by 2022, or a total of $2 trillion higher than Obama’s over the 10-year period.

Another question: Does Romney hold to his promise to boost Army and Marine forces by 100,000, raise Navy shipbuilding from nine vessels a year to 15, and buy more Air Force aircraft, including more F-22 stealth fighters and the F-35 joint strike fighter?

Of course, if I were asking the questions I would ask both candidates if they plan to cut the $320 million the Defense Department is set to spend next year on military bands.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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