STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
As we just heard, the candidates have already said a lot about foreign policy, but they have not necessarily addressed every question. Tom Ricks has been thinking about a subject that lurks somewhere beneath almost all discussions about global hotspots. Ricks has covered the U.S. military for the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and in many books. His most recent work, "The Generals," examines top military officers in recent history and their grasp of strategy.
What is something that you think the candidates have overlooked so far in their discussions and debates that have touched on foreign policy?
TOM RICKS: I've generally been disappointed in the quality of discussion about the military. The only thing (unintelligible) about the military is the defense budget. And I don't understand why there's an assumption that defense spending has to remain about the same, which is kind of President Obama's view, or that it has to increase, which is Governor Romney's view. We are coming out of two long wars here, fighting for a decade in Afghanistan and Iraq. Usually, at the end of our wars, the defense budget goes down, and Governor Romney's talking about increasing it. So it seems to me there's a basic discussion that has not been taking place. And generally I find the tone of discussion about the military quite odd. A lot of people I know in the military think we do spend too much on the military. They think that the national interest would really be better served by rebuilding inner cities or by paying our teachers more. Not all of them think we need more B-2 bombers.
INSKEEP: Some must, but you're saying not all do.
INSKEEP: Well, let me present to you, though, a summary of Mitt Romney's argument on this point. He's essentially been arguing for peace through strength, that if you eviscerate the military you end up encouraging our enemies. Isn't there something to that?
RICKS: No, I don't think there is. I think what you want is a smarter, more effective, more adaptable military. You need a military that thinks first. There's a famous British saying: We ran out of money so now we must think. That actually would be a good thing for the U.S. military to start doing. We've learned the hard way that simply going into Iraq and spending billions and billions of dollars produced very little except billions and billions of wasted dollars and a lot of money going into Swiss banks and banks in the Persian Gulf. Often the cheaper way is the better way, but the U.S. military has forgotten that and it might be time for some tough love.
INSKEEP: Well, now, the Obama administration and actually the tail end of the Bush administration, you had Robert Gates, a defense secretary under both presidents, who championed restraining spending in a lot of different ways. Admiral Mike Mullen, who was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for a while, was also identified with restraining military spending. Are you saying that not enough has been done?
RICKS: Oh, absolutely. I think the Obama people are kind of afraid of the military, especially as a political issue, and so they kind of treat them almost as an interest group. It's a little bit like giving your lunch money to the playground bully. You don't do it because you like them, you do it because you're kind of afraid of them. And Romney, I don't know. Romney seems to be sort of driven by just, you know, what's the convention Republican view. What's been left out of this is, are there better ways of doing it and why don't we ask about less expensive but equally effective ways to do things?
INSKEEP: I want to ask you about one other thing, Tom Ricks, which also came up in the vice presidential debate. Both presidential candidates have signed onto the idea of the U.S. not completely ending but fundamentally ending its leading role in Afghanistan by 2014. In the vice presidential debate, the moderator, Martha Raddatz, referred to military officers who she said think that's a bad idea. Are there a lot of military officers you know who think it's a bad idea?
RICKS: It's not that they dislike the idea of getting out of Afghanistan; they dislike the idea of publicly announcing a date. I'm not sure it's a bad idea though. You need to get out of these places. We need to operate in different lower-key, more indirect ways that are also effective. And I think making it clear to our Afghan partners that we are leaving is probably an essential act in getting Afghan security forces, the police and the military, to become more effective.
INSKEEP: Tom, thanks very much.
RICKS: Great to talk to you, Steve.
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INSKEEP: Thomas E. Ricks is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and he writes for Foreign Policy. His newest book is called "The Generals." Of course many NPR stations will bring you tonight's presidential debate live and we'll have complete coverage tomorrow, including our close read of what the candidates say, or don't say. You can, of course, follow this program throughout the day on social media. We're on Facebook. You can also find us on Twitter. We are @MorningEdition, @NPRGreene and @NPRInskeep.
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INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.