President Barack Obama speaks during his State of the Union address Jan. 24, 2012. Mitt Romney speaks at a voter summit Oct. 8, 2011.

President Barack Obama speaks during his State of the Union address Jan. 24, 2012. Mitt Romney speaks at a voter summit Oct. 8, 2011. (Pete Souza, White House/Gage Skidmore, Wikipedia)

Surrogates for President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney traded barbs Wednesday night in a foreign policy roundtable that served as a preview for the upcoming presidential debates.

It was a rare turn for the campaign, which has focused much more on unemployment and the economy than the ongoing war in Afghanistan. But the candidates are scheduled to debate national security and foreign policy twice next month, bringing military issues to the forefront of the Nov. 6 election.

The roundtable, moderated at Arizona State University by defense think-tank experts, centered largely on the Middle East and the defense budget but included a few arguments over Obama’s timeline for the drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Janine Davidson, adviser on national security issues for the Obama campaign, called the 2014 goal to turn over major combat operations to Afghan security forces a responsible strategic plan and a fulfillment of the president’s 2008 campaign promises.

Dov Zakheim, special adviser on foreign policy and national security for the Romney campaign, said the former Massachusetts governor will support that same timeline, “but with a major caveat — it will depend on what the generals on the ground are telling him.” He said Obama’s public stance on withdrawal has jeopardized combat operations and given enemy fighters incentive to hold out.

“Obama is locked into this withdrawal,” he said. “When you do that, you allow people to exploit you.”

Davidson disputed that, saying Republican critics seem intent on keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan far longer than necessary.

Zakheim accused Obama of ignoring the “Arab Spring” and trouble spots throughout the Middle East. Davidson accused Romney of supporting policies that would rush to war with Iran and employ “a reckless, cavalier use of force” in other diplomatic situations.

The ongoing defense budget debates in Washington ran through nearly all of the night’s topics, with each side blaming the other for endangering national security for the sake of other spending priorities.

Beyond the threat of nearly $500 billion in automatic budget cuts set to start in January — a plan approved by both parties in 2011 but blamed on political opponents this summer — the Defense Department has already drawn up plans to slash spending by $487 billion more over the next decade as part of Obama’s efforts to stabilize post-war military costs.

Zakheim said those cuts will lead to fewer ships, fewer planes and fewer servicemembers but larger security threats to the country.

“You can’t keep the peace if you’re not strong, and if you look at what’s happening to the military today, you see our strength disappearing before our eyes,” he said.

Davidson characterized the cuts as “ending outdated weapons systems” and making defense spending more efficient in a difficult fiscal environment.

She also said the corresponding strategic decisions accompanying the cuts — drawing down the U.S. presence in Europe and building up American forces in Asia — will leave the military better prepared for future threats.

The first presidential debate, scheduled in two weeks, is expected to focus solely on domestic policy. The first foreign policy debate between Obama and Romney won’t take place until Oct. 16, three weeks before election day.

Twitter: @LeoShane

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now