WASHINGTON – It took three debates and a year of campaigning, but the military finally got its turn in the spotlight Monday night.
Whether voters cared about the issues remains to be seen.
The foreign policy debate between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was the final showdown before next month’s election, and it came as both men stand deadlocked in national polls.
The previous debates – and most of the presidential campaign – has focused on the national economy and unemployment. The first two debates featured as many mentions of Big Bird and Romney’s proposed cuts to public television as they did mentions of the war in Afghanistan.
But leading up to Monday’s event, most pundits speculated that the issues of overseas wars and defense spending wouldn’t sway many votes, in part because of the national focus elsewhere, and in part because the two candidates agree on many military issues.
Even though it was a foreign policy debate, the 11-year-old war in Afghanistan wasn’t discussed seriously on Monday until late in the evening. But by the end of the third debate, troops overseas had a clear message that they’ll be heading out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014, regardless which candidate wins in November.
Romney said that he believes plans for a full withdrawal over the next two years are on track, thanks to the combat and training efforts of U.S. forces. “We’re going to be finished by 2014 … our troops will come home at that point.”
That mirrors Obama’s guidelines for withdrawal of American troops from the region -- a rare point of agreement between the two partisan campaigns.
Obama said that with the build-up of Afghan security forces, “we’re now in a position where we can transition out, because there’s no reason why Americans should die when Afghans are perfectly capable of defending their own country.”
Romney has criticized Obama for setting timelines on when troops will leave the country, but agrees with the basic withdrawal plan.
The two men sparred over how effective the president’s anti-terrorism strategies have been, with Romney stating bluntly that al-Qaida is no longer “on the run” from American forces. Obama said that the terrorist network “is much weaker than it was when I came into office, and they don’t have the same capacities to attack the U.S. homeland and our allies as they did four years ago.”
Romney also said he’ll have a firmer hand with Pakistan, requiring that any aid provided to the country be conditioned upon certain benchmarks being met. Obama said his administration has done a better job building partnerships not just with officials from Pakistan but across the globe, making the world a safer place.
“Across the board, we are engaging them in building capacity in these countries, and we’ve stood on the side of democracy,” he said.
One of the few surprises from the debate came on the issue of sequestration, $500 billion in mandated defense spending reductions over the next decade scheduled to start in January.
Both men said they oppose the idea of sequestration, but Obama went further, stating, “The sequester will not happen.”
Lawmakers have decried the plan for most of the year but failed to come up with any alternatives to reduce the national debt. The issue will be the main focus of Congress when they return from break after the elections.
Both the White House and Defense Department have maintained that Congress must find an alternative, but have not been optimistic about the progress.
For his part, Romney paired those looming cuts with an additional $487 billion in defense spending reductions proposed by Obama. He expressed concern that the Navy’s fleet and Air Force’s supply of aircraft were shrinking and growing increasing outdated – and that would only get worse with more budget cuts.
“In my view, the highest responsibility of the president of the United States … is to maintain the safety of the American people,” he said. “I will not cut our military budget by a trillion dollars, which is the combination of the budget cuts the president has, as well as the sequestration cuts. That, in my view, is making our future less certain and less secure.”
Obama countered that the ship and aircraft counts have decreased because of innovations in technology, and painted his challenger’s statement as a sign of his inexperience.
“You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916,” Obama said. “We also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military has changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.”
Both candidates acknowledged that the United States’ lingering debt problem is weakening the nation’s national security, and sought to position themselves as the best choice for fixing the economy.
Obama argued that a smaller, more efficient, post-war military was key not just for the Defense Department but also other domestic programs, including continued care for veterans. The president highlighted the need for more efforts to find jobs for unemployed veterans, and more research into combat-related injuries like brain trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Romney did not mention veterans in any of the three debates, but he has blasted Obama for inefficient spending at the Department of Veterans Affairs and promised to fix the ongoing benefits backlog problems there.