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.
Afghanistan. At the end of September your military commanders in Afghanistan completed a drawdown of surge troops, leaving 68,000 U.S. military personnel in the country. Now you must decide how quickly you want to remove those troops and what the 2014 deadline for transitioning security responsibility to the Afghans actually means: Will all U.S. troops be gone by the end of 2014 or will you leave a substantial contingent of forces labeled as “advise and assist” rather than as “combat” forces? And if you decide to leave troops past 2014, how many will you leave—a token force of a few thousand who will be utterly ineffectual or a more robust force of 30,000-plus that could make a meaningful contribution to prevent a Taliban takeover? Those decisions can’t be postponed for long because you need to conclude a Status of Forces Agreement with Kabul soon, and you need to provide guidance to our commanders on the ground. They are waiting to find out how many troops they will have to figure out what kind of campaign plan they can design and execute. (Usually requirements on the ground drive decisions on force size but apparently you prefer to do it in reverse.)
Sequestration. On January 2, as a result of a budget deal that you reached with Congress in the summer of 2011, sequestration is set to take effect—
$1.2 trillion in cuts split evenly between the defense budget and domestic discretionary spending. The $600 billion or so in defense cuts, coming on top of $487 billion in cuts already legislated in 2011, will have a devastating impact on our military capabilities as your own defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have warned. The cuts are especially draconian because they will hit every line item in the defense budget equally, regardless of merit. You said during the third presidential debate that the cuts won’t happen. But what will you do to prevent them? So far you’ve been absent from the budget negotiations that have occurred between House and Senate members—and leaders of your party have been dragging their feet because they want to use the threat of defense cuts to bludgeon Republicans into agreeing to tax increases. In fact, officials in your own administration have leaked word that you would veto any attempt to stop sequestration if it didn’t raise taxes on the “wealthy.” Are you going to hold the men and women in our armed forces hostage in order to achieve your domestic policy goals? You need to decide your position soon—although the private group OMB Watch claims you can unilaterally delay sequestration for at least a few weeks to give yourself more time to work out a deal with Congress.
Personnel. The end of a presidential term is the traditional time for senior, and not-so-senior, political appointees to leave office. CIA director David Petraeus has just resigned. Both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta have made clear they’re quitting. Tom Donilon, the national security adviser, has suggested he’d like to stay on, but there is no requirement that you keep him; fresh faces can invigorate a second term and prevent burnout. In any case, you will now have a chance to put an important imprimatur on your national security team. When you began your first term in office you leaned toward centrism and bipartisanship by appointing Clinton to State, Bob Gates to defense, and Jim Jones to the NSC. You have a chance to continue that legacy by filling at least one of these top jobs with an independent or a Republican—
someone like Joe Lieberman, or Tom Kean. If, instead, you choose appointees who are viewed as partisan Democrats—appointing John Kerry or Susan Rice or Tom Donilon as secretary of state, for example—you will do real damage to your relatively successful attempts, at least if we judge by exit polls, to establish your credibility and your party’s on the all-important issue of national security.
This is hardly a comprehensive list of the challenges you will face. You will also have to deal with a rising China, a belligerent if declining Russia, a dangerous North Korea, and an al Qaeda organization that has been decimated in Pakistan in large part thanks to your efforts but which has managed to spread its tentacles far afield, from Mali to Yemen. And then, of course, there is always the strong possibility of an unexpected crisis—such as the attack on the Benghazi consulate on September 11, which did real, if limited and temporary, damage to your standing on national security issues.
In confronting all of these challenges, and many others, you have a major advantage from having won reelection by a solid margin. Isolationists in both parties will be reluctant to challenge you, and you will have considerable freedom of maneuver, especially to take steps—such as intervening in Syria with a no-fly zone or making a long-term commitment to Afghanistan—that will not be popular in the short term but that have the potential to improve America’s long-term standing in the world and, hence, your own historical standing. If, on the other hand, you choose to act based on short-term calculations—as you seemed to do when you pulled all of the troops out of Iraq at the end of 2010 and all of the surge troops out of Afghanistan at the end of September—you may receive a short-term bump in popularity, but you risk undoing the objectives you have set for your foreign policy. Believe it or not, Mr. President, strong-on-defense Republicans are willing to follow if you lead in the right direction.
Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times
to the Present.