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Professors analyze defense plan response

Nicole Toczauer | Sunday, January 22, 2012

In light of President Obama’s recent announcement of a new national defense strategy, Notre Dame political science professors said Republicans will attack the president’s decision because it is an election year — even if some arguments lack validity.

At the beginning of the month, Obama announced a new national defense strategy that will focus on the creation of agile military units in Asia, the Pacific and the Middle East.

In a statement released by the White House, Obama said the reduction in the Pentagon budget stemmed from a combination of the end of a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American fiscal crisis and a growing threat from China and Iran.

“Yes, our military will be leaner, but the world must know the United States is going to maintain our military superiority with armed forces that are agile, flexible and ready for the full range of contingencies and threats,” Obama said.

Political Science Professor Michael Desch said although Republican candidates will try to use the budget cuts as evidence that Obama is “soft” on defense, their case lacks substance.

“This Democratic president hardly seems skittish about using force,” he said.

Desch cited the way Obama waged the drone war against al-Qaeda with vigor, doubled-down the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan and backed NATO’s air support for the successful anti-Qaddafi uprising in Libya.

“Most importantly, he put the big coon-skin on the side of the barn that Washington failed to do with the daring Navy SEAL strike against Osama bin Ladin in Pakistan,” he said.

These security credentials made it difficult for Republican opponents to challenge Obama on these grounds, Desch said.

Political Science Professor Peri Arnold said Republican candidates will vehemently oppose any action Obama takes because it is an election year, even if some decisions are the result of a Republican-majority Congress.

“Keep in mind that the current level of cuts, just under five billion dollars, come from a congressional legislation. In other words, Congress voted on this. [There are] members who vote, but then during the campaign year, scream,” Arnold said. “[Obama] could stand in and double the defense budget. Republicans would attack that too.”

If the Obama administration presented the defense strategy aggressively, it would win the symbolic tug of war. Still, while the military budget reduction raised an important argument, ultimately voters will choose based on improvement in the economy, Arnold said.

“I’m not so sure how important defense will be in the election. In public opinion, based on polling, the thing on the mind of most Americans is the economy,” Arnold said. “If he can gain support on those grounds, the defense issue will fade into the background.”

Although Obama has the incumbent advantage and an effective campaign team, Arnold said the focus of Obama’s platform would have to address the economy and unemployment rates.

“It’s not that the economy is a dummy variable that is good or bad, but it’s improvement that helps the incumbent,” he said. “If over the next seven or eight months [the unemployment rate] goes below eight percent, that will help a lot.”