Congratulations, Mr. President. You scored an impressive victory in a year when the economic fundamentals were not on your side. Now you’re in the position of a Super Bowl-winning coach. You have only a few days to exult in your triumph before preparing for “next season.” Actually it’s worse than that, because in the real world there is no off-season. You have earned the mixed blessing of being in charge of the most powerful country in the world for another four years—and that means you have to deal with the most difficult issues. If it’s not too presumptuous on the part of a former Romney adviser, I’d like to draw your attention to a few of the national security concerns that should be at the top of your inbox, and also recommend some courses of action that might draw bipartisan support (as well as opposition).
Syria. The killing is intensifying. Already an estimated 35,000 people have been slaughtered since the start of the Syrian civil war and more are dying every day. You have said that President Bashar al-Assad must go, but what are you going to do about it beyond providing a little nonlethal assistance to the rebels? Presumably, in addition to the risks that always come with greater American intervention and that need to be seriously considered by any commander in chief, you were concerned about getting more deeply involved at a time when you were running for reelection on a platform which stressed the comforting illusion that the “tide of war is receding.” But now that you’ve won, you have to decide whether you will sit by and allow further killing, which has grave strategic as well as humanitarian consequences. The fighting is already destabilizing neighboring countries and providing an opening for extremists in Syria. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other countries in the region are eager to act more vigorously against Assad—but they will only do so if the United States provides leadership. The fact that Washington has not provided that leadership yet is straining our relationships with key players in the region. This is the moment to implement a version of your “lead from behind” Libya strategy in Syria—mobilize our European and Arab allies to impose a no-fly zone with the United States taking the lead at first but then handing off operations after Assad’s air defenses have been taken out. Then send arms to the more moderate rebel factions and send intelligence and special operations personnel to cooperate with them to call in airstrikes against regime targets. And don’t forget to prepare a plan for stabilizing Syria after Assad’s fall—something that your administration neglected to do in Libya.
Iran. During your first term in office Iran managed to produce, according to the International Atomic Energy Commission’s August 30 report, 190 kilograms of 20 percent-enriched uranium. It only needs 240 kilograms to make a nuclear bomb. Some of that enriched uranium has been used for reactor fuel (96 kilograms), but if Iran continues on the current path it will have enough highly enriched uranium to make a nuclear device by the spring or summer of 2013. During your first term you wisely gave up attempts to seek rapprochement with Tehran and instead acquiesced in Congress’s push to impose crippling sanctions on Iran’s central bank and oil exports. (Not that you had much choice, given the large bipartisan majorities favoring such action.) There are a few more sanctions you can still apply, but that course of action is nearly exhausted. So what’s next? Will you attempt to reopen negotiations with the mullahs? Hints of such talks in the offing appeared in the press before the election, only to be denied by both sides. If the talks are real, their most likely result will be to allow the mullahs to stall for time; there is no evidence that they could be persuaded to give up their cherished nuclear program. Or will you undertake military action against the Iranian nuclear facilities—the most effective way to set back its nuclear program? Failing that, will you give Israel the green light to act, or will you continue doing everything you can to block Israeli strikes? Those are the policy alternatives available to you. Doing nothing isn’t an option—not if you’re serious about your repeated pledges not to allow Iran to go nuclear.