WASHINGTON — Stars and Stripes asked President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for responses to a broad range of national security and veterans affairs questions in an effort to help military voters make their decisions this November. Below are responses from the Obama campaign. Find responses from the Romney campaign here.
President Obama has outlined plans for a 2014 end to U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan, turning over responsibility to local security forces. Does this strategy lend enough flexibility to respond to military realities on the ground? Does the plan give enemy fighters an incentive to lie in wait until the U.S. leaves?
President Obama has been clear what our goal is in Afghanistan: To disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda, and to prevent a return to the safe haven the group had before 9/11. And that’s what we’re doing. Today, the President has a plan in place to end the war in Afghanistan responsibly by the end of 2014. We will not build permanent bases there, and we will not police Afghanistan’s streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely. President Obama has made it clear that that is the responsibility of the Afghan government, which must step up and assume increasing responsibility for the security of its country. What we can do, and will do, is build a partnership with the Afghan government and the Afghan people that endures — one that ensures we will be able to continue targeting terrorists and helping the Afghans build their capability to secure their own country. We’re doing what we went to Afghanistan to do after 9/11, and it’s time to bring our troops home.
Is there any concern that the recent attacks by Afghan trainees on coalition personnel will upset the withdrawal plans? What new steps is President Obama taking to address the issue?
The President has said time and again that he has no greater responsibility as Commander-in-Chief than the safety of our men and women in uniform. He and our nation’s military leaders take the recent attacks on our soldiers very seriously. That’s why this administration has taken extra precautions to screen Afghan Security Forces and our commanders are taking measures to ensure there is more security for our troops in Afghanistan. At the same time, the process of partnering and training Afghan security forces continues and the President has made it clear that it’s time for the Afghans to take responsibility for the security of their country. That’s why our transition plan puts them in the lead for combat operations next year, allowing us to continue bringing our troops home. The President remains committed to ending this war, on schedule, in 2014.
In his next term, what new steps would President Obama take to ensure that Pakistan remains committed to rooting out regional terrorists and supporting the democratic government in Afghanistan?
President Obama remains firmly committed to supporting peace and stability in South Asia and believes that Pakistan will be an important partner in that process going forward. We continue to work with the Pakistani government to confront the shared threat of terrorism, while respecting Pakistan’s sovereignty and democratic institutions. At the same time, President Obama believes it is in the interest of both our countries to put an end to al Qaeda’s safe havens, and he remains firmly committed to pursuing al Qaeda and its affiliates wherever they plot and train.
What should the U.S. role be in trouble spots like Libya, Syria, and Egypt? Interventionist? Silent partner? Isolationist?
The popular movements that have reshaped the Arab world over the past almost two years speak to some of America’s most deeply held values. In the Middle East and North Africa, the changes we are witnessing have been building for years. They are the expressions of a universal longing for self-representation, because all people should get to pick their leaders and have a say in the laws that govern their lives. And the United States will benefit from having allies and partners in the region who complete their transitions to democracy – because ultimately democracies have proven to be our best friends in the world.
As these changes have unfolded, the Obama administration has supported the aspirations of people reaching for democracy and human rights, and opposed the use of violence against the people of the region. In Egypt, the administration has supported a transition towards democracy. In Libya, it intervened to protect and support the Libyan people as they ended the brutal Qadhafi regime. And in Syria, the President has led the international community to put significant pressure on the regime, and has been clear that President Assad must leave power.
As we support democratic transitions in the region, President Obama has made it clear that we will continue to stand up for America’s core interests in the region — including the security of Israel, countering terrorism, and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. And we will be steadfast in calling on the nations of the region to meet their international obligations as they go through these transitions.
Ultimately, the people of the region themselves will determine the outcome of these upheavals. In some places, change will come faster than others, and progress will often come in fits and starts. But the administration is committed to helping these nations consolidate their democratic gains and working to further integrate them into the global economy.
How far does the President think that U.S. forces should draw down in Europe? Is a series of short joint exercises with allies really a strategic replacement for the long-established military bases that will be shuttered in coming years?
The President has made it clear that we will maintain a robust presence in Europe under the Defense Strategic Guidance that was released in January. We will continue investing in and strengthening existing alliances, developing new partnerships, and developing new innovative rotational deployments that will give us the capability to have a presence not only in Europe, but in Africa and Latin America and elsewhere.
For Europe, the President’s defense strategy reaffirms the lasting strategic importance of the transatlantic partnership with the United States. Although it will necessarily evolve, going forward our military footprint in Europe will remain larger than in any other region in the world. The United States will maintain our Article 5 collective security commitments to NATO and will continue to leverage America’s comparative advantage in high-end military capabilities to ensure the defense of our allies. That’s not only because the peace and prosperity of Europe is critically important to the United States, but because Europe remains our security partner of choice for military operations and diplomacy around the world. We saw that in Libya last year, and we see it in Afghanistan every day.
Is President Obama’s “Pacific pivot” a realistic strategy to strengthen U.S. interests in the region, or just a game moving personnel and equipment for show? What real effect can a few thousand more troops in the area have?
The Obama administration’s increased focus on the Asia Pacific region reflects a fundamental truth — the United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation. As the world’s fastest-growing region — and home to more than half the global economy — the Asia Pacific is critical to achieving President Obama’s highest priority: creating jobs and opportunity for the American people.
That’s why President Obama, in consultation with our military and civilian leadership, made a deliberate and strategic decision that the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping the Asia Pacific region and its future, by upholding core principles and in close partnership with our allies and friends.
The administration is already modernizing America’s defense posture across the Asia Pacific. It will be more broadly distributed — maintaining our strong presence in Japan and the Korean Peninsula, while enhancing our presence in Southeast Asia. Our posture will be more flexible, and it will be more sustainable, by helping allies and partners build their capacity, with more training and exercises.
In the Asia Pacific, we seek a future of security, prosperity and dignity for all. That’s the future we will pursue, in partnership with allies and friends, and with every element of American power.
On defense spending, what is the President’s response to Republican attacks that his proposed defense cuts go too far? Is war time the right time to be making such dramatic strategic shifts and budget trims?
Over the past four years, President Obama has made historic investments in our armed forces. He’s made it clear that as long as he is Commander-in-Chief, we’re going to remain the strongest military in the world. We will stay the best-trained, best-led, and best-equipped military in history.
It’s important to remember that the Budget Control Act passed with broad bipartisan support in Congress. And after 2013, the Budget Control Act does not cut defense spending. Instead it slows the rate of growth.
As we turn the page on a decade of war, our nation is at a moment of transition. Three years ago, we had almost 180,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have cut that number in half. And as the transition in Afghanistan moves forward our troops will continue to come home.
We cannot afford to repeat the mistakes that were made in the past — after World War II, after Vietnam — when our military was left ill prepared for the future. President Obama has pledged that he will not let that happen again. That’s why he worked in consultation with our military leaders to develop a comprehensive defense strategy, released this year, to guide our priorities and spending over the coming decade. The strategy was adopted with the full support of our senior military leaders, who have said that it maintains the United States as the strongest military in the world.
As we end today’s wars, President Obama has made it clear that we will focus on a broader range of challenges and opportunities, including the security and prosperity of the Asia Pacific. We will invest in capabilities to combat the full-range of threats. Our military will be leaner, but the United States will maintain our military superiority with armed forces that are agile, flexible, and ready for the full range of contingencies and threats.
Why was President Obama unable to do more to avoid the threat of sequestration and its effects on the defense budget?
The President has been clear — no one wants these cuts to happen.
Bipartisan majorities of Congress voted for the sequestration mechanism. And we all know that, if the sequester goes into effect, it will mean across-the-board cuts in programs that affect a lot of people. However, the sequester explicitly exempts funding for The Department of Veterans Affairs, a point that was made clear in the White House’s Congressionally-mandated report as to what the impact of the sequester would be.
The sequester was designed to force Congress to take action — which is why, to avoid these cuts, Congress needs to get back to work and agree to a balanced approach to reduce the deficit and keep our military strong.
To lead in this effort, President Obama has put forward a balanced plan to get our fiscal house in order over the long run, one that reduces our deficit by more than $4 trillion over 10 years while replacing the sequester. It is a balanced plan that includes $2.50 in spending reductions for every $1 in additional revenue, but it would keep annual defense spending at the levels agreed to with Congress last year that would be in place in the absence of sequestration.
Yet Republicans refuse to ask the wealthiest to pay a single penny more, putting defense spending at risk. That is the only obstacle to preventing this sequester and achieving real deficit reduction. It’s time for Congress to stop playing politics with our military.
What does President Obama see as the ideal end strength for each of the military services? Are the recent proposed cuts to the defense department jeopardizing the strength of the force by cutting those personnel numbers too far?
President Obama believes we don’t have to choose between protecting our nation’s security and being fiscally responsible. He has worked with our military and civilian leadership to ensure our budget decisions are driven by strategy, and not the other way around. The force strengths in the defense strategy are supported by our nation’s military and civilian leadership, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
For eight years, the previous administration put two wars on a credit card — which helped turn record budget surpluses into record deficits. With the tide of war receding, the administration has developed a strategy to prepare for challenges of the coming decades, while ensuring we maintain our unchallenged military superiority with armed forces that are flexible and ready for the full range of contingencies and threats.
Does President Obama still support another base closure round, even after the opposition of many lawmakers and local officials?
The President has made it clear that he does not believe now is the time for BRAC. The new defense strategy does not call for that.
Pentagon planners have repeatedly endorsed plans to increase Tricare fees for military retirees. Does President Obama still support this idea, even with the intense opposition from veterans groups?
The President is committed to making sure that our service members, veterans and military families receive the highest quality health care we can offer. He has made this a priority since day one, and that’s why we’ve funded veterans’ health care a full year in advance to prevent political gridlock in Washington from hurting our those who have given so much to this country.
But as the cost of health care rises, benefit programs must be restructured in order to remain solvent. We have to do things now to make sure that we can sustain the system. Defense health care costs have grown from $19 billion in 2001 to over $50 billion in 2012. There has not been an adjustment in Tricare premiums since 1995. There is bipartisan recognition — including from Republicans like Senator Lindsay Graham — that the drastically increasing cost of military health care needs to be addressed.
President Obama has made it clear that any Tricare premium increases will be based on military retirement income level. Even after these modest increases, though, the cost borne by military retirees under Tricare will remain dramatically lower than most comparable private sector plans. In many cases, it will remain less than half the cost of comparable private sector or government employee health care plans.
What is President Obama’s opinion on the role of women in combat? Is the Defense Department working quickly enough to open new battlefield positions to them?
Under President Obama’s leadership, the Department of Defense in February announced policy changes that allowed military women — particularly soldiers — to see more than 14,000 new job or assignment opportunities. The changes were based in part on findings the Military Leadership Diversity Commission reported to Congress.
The report published in February included a “vision statement”: “The Department of Defense is committed to removing all barriers that would prevent service members from rising to the highest level of responsibility that their talents and capabilities warrant.”
The President supports these policy reforms, and is proud to have opened new possibilities to women in our military.
Can President Obama assure veterans that even in a difficult fiscal environment, the Department of Veterans Affairs will continue to enjoy hefty increases in is annual funding?
One of President Obama’s highest priorities as Commander-in-Chief is to uphold our sacred trust with all our veterans and our men and women in uniform — not just today, but in the decades to come. This means making sure they have good job opportunities, high-quality health care, and disability and education benefits. And because we ended the war in Iraq and are drawing down in Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands of troops are coming home. The President has said that as we wind down these wars, our commitment to our veterans will endure
Over the past four years, President Obama has significantly increased funding to the VA to meet the needs of our veterans and their loved ones, and he remains committed to honoring our veterans and their sacrifice by offering them the best services possible. With more than 1 million active-duty personnel scheduled to join the ranks of America’s 22 million veterans during the next five years, he has significantly increased funding for the VA even in these tough budgetary times. His budget proposal, which must be approved by Congress, would fund services for newly discharged veterans, continue the drive to end homelessness among veterans, improve access to benefits and services, reduce the disability claims backlog, improve the VA’s collaboration with the Defense Department, and strengthen its information-technology program that is vital for delivering services to veterans.
The veterans benefits backlog has risen dramatically during the last four years. How will President Obama solve that problem in his second term? Is the problem a lack of resources or a lack of focus on addressing the problem?
As our men and women in uniform come home from Iraq and Afghanistan, the VA system is handling an increased number of veterans. So, as part of the Recovery Act, President Obama ensured that the VA was able to hire new claims processors to get veterans their benefits more quickly and more efficiently. And he is seeking more resources to improve benefits processing, including increased staff, training and information technology enhancements. He directed the Department of Defense and the VA to create a single computerized medical record to ensure the seamless transition of veterans from active duty to civilian life. These innovative reforms will dramatically increase the speed and efficiency with which the VA is able to address disability claims, and allow the department to respond with greater efficiency and better accuracy. Still, the wait time is too long for too many. That’s why President Obama will continue to monitor the implementation of this system, and he is fully dedicated to ensuring efficiency and accuracy for our veterans.
Gov. Romney has talked about expanding the post 9/11 GI Bill to open all state schools to any veteran. Does President Obama support that plan? Does he have other plans to expand those education benefits? If so, how will they be paid for?
The President is committed to ensuring that our veterans continue to have access to higher education. As a Senator, he pushed for the Post-9/11 GI Bill, and he has ensured its successful implementation as President. As of March of this year, the VA has issued approximately $17.5 billion in Post-9/11 GI Bill benefit payments for more than 710,000 veterans or eligible family members pursuing higher education, and the VA received Spring 2012 enrollments from more than 420,000 individuals. These VA benefits can now also be used for vocational programs. Furthermore, to ensure our veterans and military families are able to make the most of their hard-earned education benefits, this year President Obama issued an Executive Order establishing principles of excellence for educational institutions serving servicemembers, veterans, spouses, and other family members. This Executive Order ensures our servicemembers, veterans, spouses, and other family members have the information they need to make informed decisions concerning their well-earned federal military and veteran’s educational benefits. This new policy requires that colleges provide more transparent information about their outcomes and financial aid options for students, which will help ensure that students are aware of the true cost and likelihood of completion prior to enrolling. This Executive Order will also keep bad actors off of military installations, crack down on improper online recruiting practices, provide veterans with a complaint system to ensure they have a voice, give students with better data on educational institutions, and strengthen enforcement of student protections.
Despite recent efforts, veterans unemployment remains stubbornly high, especially among younger veterans and those returning from war. How will the President address that in his next term?
President Obama firmly believes that no one who fights for this country should have to fight for a job when they come home. Last November, he signed two new tax credits into law. Both the Returning Heroes Tax Credit and the Wounded Warriors Tax Credit are helping put veterans and our wounded warriors back to work. The Obama administration is strengthening transition programs to ensure that servicemembers leave the military prepared for civilian careers. We have forged unprecedented new partnerships between the military and the private sector to make it easier for companies to hire returning servicemembers, which means greater access to jobs in manufacturing, in health care, in information technology, in logistics, and for first responders. The President has launched an initiative designed to transform the federal government into the model employer of America’s veterans, and has proposed $1 billion to develop a Veterans Job Corps program that would put up to 20,000 veterans back to work over the next five years protecting and rebuilding America — as police officers and firefighters and on projects that protect our public lands and resources. Unfortunately, Republicans in Congress blocked the Veterans Job Corps, putting politics before our veterans. President Obama has made it clear that he will continue to make job security for our returning veterans a top priority.
Looking forward, how will President Obama address the issue of veterans suicides? What is to blame for the continued rise in the number of troops/veterans who are taking their own lives?
President Obama is committed to helping our veterans recover from the wounds of war, both seen and unseen. At his direction, the VA has made mental health services for veterans a top priority. Last year, The VA provided specialty mental health services to 1.3 million veterans. Since 2009, the VA has increased the mental health care budget by 39 percent and hired more than 3,500 mental health professionals. To meet this challenge, the VA has launched an effort to hire an additional 1,600 mental health professionals to serve Veterans by June 2013.
In August, President Obama signed an executive order directing the expansion of suicide prevention strategies and to take steps to meet the growing demand for mental health and substance abuse services available to veterans, service member, and military families. This order directed the VA to increase its crisis line capacity by 50% by the end of next year, ensure that any veteran identifying him or herself as being in crisis connects with a trained mental health worker within 24 hours, and work with the Department of Defense to develop a 12 month suicide prevention campaign. Additionally the VA will hire 800 peer-to-peer support counselors to empower veterans to support other veterans.
The VA has also enhanced services by integrating mental health care into the primary care setting, developing an extensive suicide prevention program, and increasing the number of Veterans Readjustment Counseling Centers (Vet Centers). We have increased the number of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) programs to meet the special needs of veterans with co-occurring PTSD and substance use disorders, other mental health problems, and military sexual trauma. Today, every VA medical center provides services for veterans suffering from PTSD. President Obama also announced new rules making it easier for veterans coping with effects of PTSD to get the benefits they need by significantly reducing documentation requirements.
Still, there is much more work to do. President Obama is determined to expand the capacity of our mental health provider base, increase timely access to care, improve the quality of the care being provided, better synchronize the research surrounding PTSD and TBI, and reduce the stigma affiliated with seeking mental health services.
What qualities/qualifications will President Obama require of his pick to be the next VA secretary, assuming that Sec. Shinseki does not stay in that role?
Secretary Shinseki has served our country with extraordinary valor and courage and is leading our efforts to create a 21st century VA. The President deeply appreciates Secretary Shinseki’s extraordinary service to our country and his tireless commitment to our veterans.