WASHINGTON — No matter who wins the presidency this week, there will still be troops in Iraq and Afghanistan next spring.

All military personnel will still see a hefty pay increase in January, and with the current Congress they’re likely to get above-inflation raises each of the next four years. Deep cuts in defense programs aren’t likely with either candidate’s victory, as both have promised to keep up national security spending.

But if Barack Obama wins, it could mean fewer troops in Iraq right away and an end to the "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy. A John McCain victory likely means a big boost in the number of soldiers and Marines along with more overseas combat tours in the next four years.

Here’s how the two candidates’ plans compare:

Iraq and Afghanistan

Both McCain and Obama have said that significant troop drawdowns in Iraq will occur in the next four years, but they disagree on timing.

Obama has targeted the summer of 2010 as the point to have nearly all U.S. combat forces out of the country, and wants to begin by pulling one or two brigades a month early next year.

McCain has opposed any such timelines, saying the U.S. must remain committed to the fight until Iraq "becomes capable of governing itself and safeguarding its people." The stance mirrors President Bush’s current policy in Iraq.

Both men have also advocated sending more troops into Afghanistan to help control the growing violence there. McCain wants three more combat brigades; Obama has pushed for two more.

There’s little practical difference in those plans. But while Obama has promised to staff those rotations with drawdowns from Iraq, McCain instead wants to grow the military above current plans to ensure enough personnel for the overseas deployments, according to Ben Friedman, a defense research fellow at the Cato Institute.

‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’

While combat operations overseas have gotten the most attention in the debates, the biggest difference between the candidates’ military stances is actually in their stance on homosexuals serving openly in the military.

McCain has said he believes the present policy is working, and has pledged not to make any changes.

But Obama opposes the rule, and has promised to work with military leaders to overturn the policy, which requires military leaders to dismiss gay troops who publicly declare their sexual orientation.

"And with a Democratic Congress, you’d have to believe that "don’t ask, don’t tell" will be overturned if he’s elected," said Lawrence Korb, a senior analyst at the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

Korb predicts the policy could be changed before Obama’s first term is finished. But Jim Carafano, senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, thinks even with a Democratic president the ban will remain unchanged.

"It’s so contentious and so negative of a debate, you’d have to be an idiot to want to get involved with that right out of the box," he said.

In May, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen said the military is prepared to follow whatever policy is approved by Congress.

"[‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’] is a law and we follow it," he said in a speech before cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. "Should the law change, the military will carry that out, too."


House Democrats for years have pushed to overturn laws prohibiting military physicians at overseas bases from performing abortions, forcing troops or their family seeking the medical procedure off-base.

The provision has not made it past House and Senate Republicans, and would not be signed into law by a President McCain. On the campaign trail he has proudly boasted his 11 votes against allowing the overseas abortions.

But Obama said he would push to legalize military abortions at foreign bases, arguing the procedure is allowed at stateside facilities and should be available to those troops seeking it.

Their stances on the overseas base issue mirror their positions on the larger abortion debate; McCain has vowed to work to outlaw abortions, while Obama has pledged to work to uphold the Roe v. Wade decision.

Military spending

Just how much or how little each candidate will spend on the Pentagon in their first presidential budget depends on who you ask.

Pete Hegseth, chairman of the conservative lobbying group Vets for Freedom, said an Obama administration would ask the military to do "less with less" as it withdraws from Iraq, to help pay for a host of new domestic programs.

Jon Soltz, founder of the anti-Iraq war group VoteVets, said a Republican administration would be worse for military finances because of the extra attention and costs associated with an extended presence in Iraq.

Either way, Congress still controls much of the decisions on new equipment purchases, new research projects and new military spending priorities. The president can use his influence to push for certain priorities, but short of a spending bill veto there is only so much he can do.

Regardless who wins, Friedman said, cutting military pay and benefits isn’t likely to be a popular choice.

"I don’t think the politics will change," he said. "The next president is going to have to deal with a growing deficit and defense spending, but neither candidate right now has any serious plans for that."

In the end he predicts little effect on military pay raises, which have stayed at or above inflation rates for the past eight years, and little change to money for veterans education and health benefits.

"If you want to stay in office, you don’t want to cut or even just hold steady paychecks," he said.

Senior leadership

If Obama wins the White House this week, many senior Pentagon officials should expect to be out of work by next year.

While the military chain of command won’t immediately be affected, Bush appointees in the Defense Department, even the widely respected Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, likely won’t be back in a Democratic administration, analysts said.

But Carafano said he expects just as much turnover in a McCain administration.

"McCain will want his own people, and so many of these guys have been there for a number of years," he said. "I think we’re going to see pretty significant turnover either way."

Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean major changes for lower level troops. Carafano said he thinks the average servicemember will notice "surprisingly little difference" even with a new leadership structure.

"Gates’ policies so far have been pretty centrist," he said. "I think guys stationed in Iraq or in Kuwait aren’t going to see any change in their mission."

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