Undercard Debate: Not Much Difference When It Comes to U.S. Interventions

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Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Republican vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in Thursday night's debate in Danville, Ky.

There was a lot of smoke in Thursday night’s vice presidential debate. It felt hotter when watched. Reading a transcript Friday morning shows much more consensus between Vice President Joe Biden and GOP challenger Rep. Raul Ryan.

Of course, that can be a problem. No one’s going to vote out an incumbent unless the challenger can present a clear alternative.

Yet on the biggest national-security issues now in play – what should U.S. policy be toward Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria?— there was little difference between the two positions staked out by the No. 2 man on their party’s respective ticket. As Ryan said on another topic: “It’s a distinction without a difference.” When moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News pressed for specifics, too often they were MIA.

In some ways, it was like a high-school debate:

Biden: The last thing we need now is another war.

Ryan: We want to prevent war!

But national-security daylight between them was hard to discern.

On Afghanistan:

Biden: We are leaving in 2014, period [that will no doubt come as a surprise to U.S. and allied leaders who are now debating how large of a force will remain in Afghanistan in 2015 and beyond. They’re planning on training Afghan troops, conduct special operations, and provide Afghan security forces with medevac helicopters and other military capabilities].

Ryan: We agree with a 2014 transition [to Afghan control of combat missions in that country]..We don’t want to stay…We don’t want to extend beyond 2014.

On Iran:

Ryan: They’re moving faster toward a nuclear weapon; they’re spinning the centrifuges faster.

Biden: Our military and intelligence communities are absolutely the same exact place in terms of how close the Iranians are to getting a nuclear weapon. They are a good way away.

Ryan: I agree that it’s probably longer.

On Syria:

Biden: What more would they do other than put American boots on the ground? The last thing America needs is to get into another ground war in the Middle East requiring tens of thousands if not well over a hundred thousand American forces.

Ryan: Nobody is proposing to send troops to Syria — American troops…we agree with the same red line, actually, [as the Obama Administration does] on chemical weapons, but not putting American troops in, other than to secure those chemical weapons. They’re right about that.

The differences highlighted by Ryan were second-order issues, or as he said about Afghanistan: “We’ve disagreed from time to time on a few issues.” That’s hardly a battle cry for GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney to scream if he thinks President Obama is really blowing it when it comes to U.S. national security.

Defense spending also flashed by.

“The military says we need a smaller, leaner Army,” Biden said. “We need more special forces; we don’t need more M-1 tanks. What we need is more UAVs…that was the decision of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommended to us and agreed to by the President. That’s a fact.” True, but generals picked by Presidents too often engage in White House groupthink.

Ryan said half of Romney’s plan to boost defense spending by $2 trillion simply consists of not letting a $1 trillion reduction in future defense spending happen. Roughly half of that trillion has already been trimmed from the Pentagon’s spending plan over the next decade (the budget would continue to grow, but not as fast as inflation). The second $500 billion would be cut if the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration happens early next year.

“If these cuts go through, our Navy will be the smallest it has been since before World War I – this invites weakness,” Ryan said. “Look, do we believe in peace through strength? You bet we do. And that means you don’t impose these devastating cuts on our military. So we’re saying don’t cut the military by a trillion dollars.”