Will Romney’s promises match national security realities?

February 1, 2012

I can’t wait for the presidential election debate on national security issues this fall if, as appears probable, Mitt Romney is the Republican Party’s candidate.

He capsulized his views Tuesday night in Tampa during his Florida primary victory speech when he said:

“President Obama believes America’s role as leader in the world is a thing of the past. He is intent on shrinking our military capacity at a time when the world faces rising threats. I will insist on a military so powerful no one would ever think of challenging it.

“President Obama has adopted a strategy of appeasement and apology. I will stand with our friends and speak out for those seeking freedom.”

Tough talk, indeed.

Earlier Tuesday, the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper, appeared with six other directors of the country’s intelligence agencies to give their assessment of the worldwide threats facing the nation. It is interesting to put them up against what Romney said later that day — as well as in the past.

We’ll avoid the rhetorical flourish about Obama believing that “America’s role as leader in the world is a thing of the past.” The president expressed his view in his State of the Union speech: “Anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”

What about Romney’s statement that “the world faces rising threats”?

Clapper opened Tuesday by saying it was impossible to rank, in terms of long-term importance, “counterterrorism, counterproliferation, cybersecurity and counterintelligence” as potential U.S. security threats.

Clapper described al-Qaeda as “of largely symbolic importance” compared with other “like-minded groups” now lumped together as “the global jihadist movement.” The main reason for downgrading al-Qaeda was America’s killing of Osama bin Laden. The elimination of Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S. citizen and transnational operations chief of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, temporarily reduces the prospect of that group carrying out a U.S. attack, he said.

Neither Romney nor other Republican candidates mention bin Laden, al-Awlaki and al-Qaeda these days.

So terrorism remains a threat, but hardly a “rising” one.

Proliferation, on the other hand, still constitutes “a major threat to the safety of our nation” and is “among our top concerns,” Clapper said. Iran, he said, is developing nuclear capabilities that keep open the option of developing nuclear weapons, but, he added, “We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.”

Romney has repeatedly said that “Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon is unacceptable.” He often has emphasized that the option of attacking Tehran’s nuclear facilities is “on the table.” In that sense, his position is no different than Obama’s, who in his State of the Union speech said, “Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.”

Clapper said that North Korea’s nuclear program was “a serious threat to the security environment in East Asia.”

The assessment remains that it has “produced nuclear weapons,” he said, but that they were “for deterrence, international prestige and coercive diplomacy.”

He added that the assessment, “albeit with low confidence,” was that North Korea “probably would not attempt to use nuclear weapons against U.S. forces or territory unless it perceived its regime to be on the verge of military defeat and risked an irretrievable loss of control.”

“Cyberthreats,” Clapper said, “pose a critical national and economic security concern” that is likely to increase. Romney has said that one of his first presidential actions would be to order “a full interagency initiative to formulate a unified national strategy to deter and defend against the growing threats of militarized cyberattacks.”

At Tuesday’s hearing, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) said the administration was dragging its feet on the subject. Clapper responded that the White House had appointed a cyber coordinator to work with an interagency group but that because it has so many constituents, progress is difficult.

Romney’s insistence “on a military so powerful no one would ever think of challenging it,” in contrast to Obama’s intent “on shrinking” forces, appears less important. Why? Because as Clapper noted, Russia, since 2008, has decided “to field a smaller, more mobile, better-trained and high-tech force over the next decade.” Russian ground forces have been reduced about 60 percent, and about 135,000 officer positions have been cut.

In short, it is becoming more like the United States, where reductions of 100,000 in the Army and Marine Corps are to occur over the next five years — if Congress approves.

Here’s where the presidential national security debate could become interesting. Romney opposes the Obama cuts and, in fact, wants to add 100,000 troops to the force. While Obama’s plan is to slow down the building of Navy ships from 11 a year to nine or 10, Romney would increase it to 15 a year.

Obama’s approach meets current law — provisions in the August 2011 budget-control act, which required reductions of $487 billion in defense spending over the next 10 years.

How Romney would pay for his increased defense spending would also be subject to that future debate, since he also said Tuesday night that he would “not just freeze government’s share of the total economy, I will reduce it. And, without raising taxes, I will finally balance the budget.”

For a President Romney, or any other president, that would appear to be quite an ambitious trick.

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

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