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Romney, Obama Surrogates Clash Over Military Strategy

The Romney campaign is putting more meat on the bones of its defense policy, and the result is a muscular, almost hawkish posture.

Dov Zakheim, Mitt Romney's special adviser for foreign policy and national security, went toe-to-toe with Richard Verma, who plays a similar role for the Obama campaign, at a forum Wednesday.

The two tussled for over an hour in a foreign policy debate of sorts at a Washington, D.C., hotel.

Zakheim scoffed at the administration's plans for a "pivot to Asia," a rebalancing of defense forces toward the Pacific, saying President Obama could not cut the size of the military and expand its responsibilities at the same time.

And he accused the White House of "sitting on its hands" while the fighting in Syria evolves into a civil war.

Zakheim echoed Ronald Reagan's call for "peace through strength," and called for boosting defense spending, including a big uptick in shipbuilding: Romney wants to build 15 ships a year, more than the current pace of nine per year.

Verma called Romney's defense plans "hard to follow." And he argued that Republicans were just as responsible for current cuts in defense spending, mandated by last year's Budget Control Act, which the GOP congressional leadership supported as a way out of the debt-ceiling crisis.

Verma said Romney's plans, which call for adding 100,000 ground troops, would cost an additional $2 trillion over the next decade. He said it's ridiculous to say, as Romney has, that the Navy is the smallest it's been since World War I. Verma said the 287 ships in the current fleet are vastly more powerful than craft from a century ago, and are more than enough to defend U.S. interests.

Defense spending got little more than a mention in the first presidential debate. It will be interesting to see whether the upcoming forums — beginning with Thursday's vice presidential debate between incumbent Joe Biden and Republican challenger Paul Ryan — will get into the weeds of defense policy the way these surrogate debates are.

If so, they will touch on areas where there is an awful lot of daylight between the two campaigns.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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