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Start the Defense Debate Tonight

Start the Defense Debate Tonight

By Jed Babbin - August 11, 2011

Republican presidential hopefuls on stage in Iowa tonight will spend most of their time answering questions about reducing the federal debt, how they would have handled the debt ceiling crisis and how government could help create jobs. Those kitchen table issues will inevitably dominate the 2012 campaign, but history teaches us that one-dimensional campaigns rarely succeed.

As vulnerable as Obama is on economic issues, his defense and foreign policies make him much more so. On issues ranging from the Libya adventure to his insistence on closing the terrorist facility at Guantanamo Bay, Obama’s policies create a major gap between him and American voters.

Here are a five topics and questions that should be asked tonight to kick off the 2012 defense debate.

1) Defense Budget Cuts

In a speech last April, Obama credited now-former Defense Secretary Robert Gates with cutting $400 billion in defense spending over the next decade and proposed that an additional $400 billion be cut over the same period. Now, the new “super committee” -- if it deadlocks on further budget cuts of $1.2 to $1.4 trillion -- will trigger defense cuts that may amount to as much as $600 to $700 billion over 10 years.

Obama’s first $400 billion in cuts were crafted in a way that would please the Queen of Hearts in “Alice in Wonderland”: verdict first, trial after. Obama set the amount to be cut from the budget and then required the armed forces to back into a budget that reflected the cuts. There was no analysis of the threats the Pentagon has to deter or defeat or if Obama was cutting fat or muscle. The cuts were proposed and made in a vacuum. Any cuts imposed by a “super committee” deadlock will be done the same illogical way.

Instead of picking a number and forcing the Pentagon to match it with program and personnel cuts, the Pentagon budget should be based on a thorough analysis of the threats we face and -- from that analysis -- a budget be derived to ensure that our armed forces have the capabilities they need to deter or defeat those threats.

Question: If the Pentagon budget is going to be cut, how would you determine what should be cut and what shouldn’t? Is there a bottom line below which the Pentagon budget cannot be cut?

2) Iraq, Afghanistan and Nation-Building

Gen. David Petraeus, when he was commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and later in Afghanistan, always characterized our accomplishments as fragile and reversible. Iraq is now suffering more violence than it was only a year ago, and in Afghanistan -- according to the military’s April 2011 report to Congress -- after 9½ years of war, less than half of the population lives in areas with either “emerging” or “full” governance by the Karzai administration. It predicts that "the months ahead will see setbacks as well as successes. There will be difficult fighting and tough losses as the enemy tries to regain momentum and key areas lost in the past six months.” And as we begin to withdraw in those same months, the Taliban and other terrorist groups will begin to retake what they lost. The facts on the ground strongly indicate that the accomplishments of nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan are so fragile that they will evaporate quickly after U.S. forces leave.

Question: Do you believe that nation-building was the right strategy to have followed? What strategy would you follow from this point forward to ensure that neither Iraq nor Afghanistan becomes the base for the next 9/11 attack on the United States?

3) Our Disarming Allies

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, most of our allies -- including, conspicuously, many NATO members -- have reduced their defense spending dramatically. Only five of the 28 NATO members have defense budgets that exceed 2 percent of their GDP, and even those -- including the U.K. -- are making more deep cuts. We have spent disproportionately on the mutual defense of our allies, and in support of operations, such as Libya, in which they insisted on military intervention.

Question: Should America insist that our allies invest proportionally in our mutual defense? What should we do if they refuse?

4) Guantanamo Bay

Since January 2002, terrorist detainees have been confined at the special facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. As of December 2010, about 600 detainees had been transferred out of U.S. custody -- that is, either into custody of other nations or simply released. Of those released, about 25 percent are confirmed or suspected of having returned to terrorist activities. President Obama has, since the day of his inauguration, been dedicated to closing Gitmo and either moving the remaining prisoners into the U.S. for trial in civilian courts or into another form of permanent detention here. Congressional action has blocked him from doing so.

However, the administration has begun to bring newly captured foreign-born terrorists into the U.S. for trial. For example, Ahmed Warsame, a Somali militant suspected to be member of al-Qaeda, was captured in April, kept on a U.S. Navy ship for two months of interrogation and is now under indictment and awaiting a federal trial in New York City.

Question: Should Gitmo be closed or should all captured foreign terrorists -- such as Warsame and would-be airline underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab -- be imprisoned there and tried by military commissions?

5) Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Last, and clearly not least in states such as Iowa, is Obama’s social engineering of the military. He insisted upon repeal of the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” law to allow homosexuals to serve openly in the military. The military was opposed to repeal (all but one of the Joint Chiefs were opposed), and the Pentagon survey touted by the Washington Post as having found 70 percent of service members believed repeal would have positive, mixed or no effect on the services didn’t say that at all. In fact, the DoD Inspector General’s investigation into a leak of that study reported that the 70 percent figure reflected a pro-repeal sentiment in the leaker and that anyone who was anti-repeal could have, with equal truthfulness, said the survey determined that 82 percent of service members thought repeal would have negative, mixed or no effect.

Question: Should the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” law be reenacted?

A host of other questions about Obama’s policies can and should be debated by Republicans, who can choose among them and hone their arguments in the primary process so they can be used effectively in the general election campaign.

Let’s begin that defense debate tonight. 

Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense under George H.W. Bush.

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