Debating the Future of U.S. National Security: Essential Facts for the Final Presidential Debate

October 22, 2012

Foreign policy and national security will take center stage when President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney debate for the third and final time on Monday, October 22nd.  The debate’s topics will include:  America’s Role in the WorldOur Longest War: Afghanistan and PakistanRed Lines: Israel and IranThe Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism; and The Rise of China and Tomorrow's World.  In anticipation of the debate, the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) is releasing some essential facts and issues about each of these topics that the public and news media may find helpful to understanding U.S. foreign and defense policy over the last four years.  For more information, see FPI’s briefing book, Foreign Policy 2012.

America’s Role in the World

Americans believe the United States should continue to play a leading role in the world.

  • In a September 2012 national survey, FPI found that an overwhelming majority of likely voters (92.2%) believe it is important for the United States to continue playing a significant role in world affairs.  More than a decade after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a very strong majority of likely voters (85.7%) say that the United States is a “force for good in the world.”

Unless reversed, looming cuts to defense spending will massively and indiscriminately slash the military, increase risks to national security, and undermine America’s global leadership role.

  • The Pentagon’s civilian and military leaders publicly warn that President Obama’s current defense budget—which cuts $487 billion over 10 years—is barely adequate to meet America’s current global defense strategy.  Despite these warnings, President Obama has done little to prevent “sequestration,” automatic spending reductions which, starting in January 2013, will cut yet another $500 billion from defense in the next decade.  Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta cautions sequestration will be “devastating” to the men and women of the U.S. military.  General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warns:  “In my personal military judgment, formed over 38 years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime right now, and I think sequestration would be completely oblivious to that, and counterproductive.”
  • The Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a “budget reconciliation” bill in May 2012 that would replace the first year of defense and non-defense sequestration cuts with alternative 10-year reductions in mandatory spending.  However, President Obama and Senate Democrats have signaled they will reject any attempt to reverse sequestration that does not include tax increases.

U.S. foreign assistance—which now consumes 1 percent of the federal budget—has helped millions of people, and reflects the generous character of the American people. 

  • Both parties should avoid the temptation to use the international affairs budget as a political punching bag.  The United States has a national interest in continuing properly monitored and targeted non-military foreign assistance.  For example, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) is an independent U.S. agency that awards grants to nations that have shown a commitment to good governance and economic freedom.  Such assistance—which has been used for water supply and sanitation projects, finance and enterprise development, democracy promotion, and other activities—helps not only to strengthen current U.S. allies and partners, but also to develop new ones.

Our Longest War:  Afghanistan and Pakistan 

President Obama’s withdrawal of 33,000 “surge” troops before the 2012 election is endangering critical security gains and undermining strategic objectives in Afghanistan.

  • The U.S. mission in Afghanistan was never simply to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, and keep al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces on the run.  It was also to help create the security conditions so Afghanistan never again becomes a failed state and safe haven for terrorists—but instead emerges as a durable state that is capable of governing itself and providing for its own security, and respects the impartial rule of law, protects minority and women’s rights, and is at peace with its neighbors.
  • In December 2009, President Obama sent a “surge” of 33,000 troops to help reverse Afghanistan’s worsening security situation.  Since then, the U.S.-led NATO campaign against al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces has made significant but reversible progress in uprooting insurgents from their strongholds in the country’s southern provinces.  But the President’s withdrawal of “surge” forces by September 2012—ahead of the timetable recommended by his military advisors risks undermining the overall mission.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan continues to aid and abet terrorist groups within its territory.  

  • As demonstrated by the successful raid by U.S. Navy SEALS that killed Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups are still operating within Pakistan’s borders.  Indeed, the U.S. State Department officially designated the Haqqani Network—a group that has repeatedly killed U.S., NATO, and Afghan troops in Afghanistan—a “foreign terrorist organization” in September 2012.
  • Pakistan is far from being a consistent partner in America’s War on Terror.  While Islamabad has fought Islamist groups that overtly threaten its own security, certain elements within Pakistan’s military and intelligence services are indirectly and directly supportive of terrorist groups.  However, Islamabad’s possession of nuclear weapons and its influence on Afghanistan means that the United States cannot simply disengage from Pakistan or the wider region.

Red Lines:  Israel and Iran

Under President Obama, the United States and Israel have not always stood “shoulder-to-shoulder” against Iran.

  • Israel says Iran’s growing ability to produce a weapon is nearing a “zone of immunity,” and poses an existential threat.  But despite Iran’s nuclear progress, President Obama insists there’s still time for diplomacy to work.  The Obama administration continues to publicly differ with Israel on clear “red lines” that would necessitate action to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons-making capability.

Despite the Obama administration’s efforts in international diplomacy and economic pressure, Iran has made significant progress towards having the ability to make a nuclear weapon on short notice.

  • Since January 2009, the terror-sponsoring government of Iran has steadily grown its declared stockpile of nuclear material that could be quickly enriched for use in a nuclear explosive device.  In August 2012, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that, while Iran had roughly 1000 kg of uranium enriched to 3.5 percent in January 2009, it now has 6876 kg —enough uranium feedstock, if further enriched, for at least 5 nuclear weapons.  Iran also possesses 189.4 kg of high enriched uranium (HEU) at 20 percent, which it first started producing in September 2010.
  • Over the last four years, Iran has made progress on the advanced research and development necessary for the non-nuclear components of a nuclear explosive device.  According to the IAEA’s November 2011 report, Iran has a long history of conducting studies, simulations, and real-world experiments directly related to using conventional high explosives to implode fissile material and initiate a nuclear explosion.

The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism

The terrorist attack that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and others suggests that not enough was done to stabilize post-Qaddafi Libya.

  • The United States was correct to intervene in Libya to protect U.S. national security interests and prevent the mass slaughter of civilians.  However, contrary to the claims of Obama administration officials, the U.S. war in Libya that ousted dictator Muammar Qaddafi was not a model intervention. 
  • The terror attack against the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi makes it clear the United States and the international community have failed to empower post-Qaddafi Libya with the necessary support, tools, and resources to improve its internal security against terrorists and prevent weapons proliferation.  In a troubling development, pro-Qaddafi mercenaries have fled to Mali, aligned themselves with al-Qaeda-linked groups, and destabilized that country and the wider region.

Because the Arab Spring presents both promise and peril, the United States should work to support and empower Arab reformers who share America’s values, and establish clear “red lines” in Egypt, Bahrain, Tunisia, and elsewhere.

  • For example, Egypt held free elections for the first time in decades in 2012, and now must uphold its commitments to democratic governance and basic human rights.  It is critical that the newly-elected government of Mohamed Morsi preserve the 1979 peace treaty with Israel; respect minority, religious, and women’s rights; allow other political parties to compete and develop; and hold open and transparent elections in the future.  Unfortunately, the Obama administration has failed so far to make clear to the Morsi government that future U.S. assistance will be contingent upon Cairo’s not crossing critical “red lines.”

Syrian Dictator Bashar al-Assad has not only ignored President Obama’s August 2011 demand that he step down, but also escalated the country’s internal crisis to deadly heights.

  • The crisis in Syria implicates not only U.S. national security interests, but also its values.  The terror-sponsoring Assad regime is Iran’s closest ally in the Arab World, a supporter of foreign fighters that has killed American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a possessor of chemical and biological weapons that attempted to pursue a secret nuclear program.  Moreover, at least 30,000 civilians have died since the Assad regime’s forces began their campaign of indiscriminate violence against Syrian opposition groups.  In addition, more than 1.2 million civilians have been internally displaced from their homes, and more than 340,000 refugees have fled the country.
  • The Obama administration’s strategy of economic pressure, international diplomacy, and non-military assistance has failed to stop the slaughter.  Moreover, the escalating carnage is now spilling over Syria’s borders—especially into Turkey, where the Assad regime’s cross-border artillery attacks, airspace and territorial violations, and use of civilian air traffic to smuggle arms and munitions for resupply have further angered Ankara.  If the United States and other nations continue to stand on the sidelines and refrain from empowering moderate members of the armed opposition, then radical extremists may gain the upper hand in the country’s rebellion against the Assad regime.

While much of al-Qaeda’s central leadership has been killed or captured since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, its regional affiliates continue to pose a grave threat to the United States and its partners.

  • Upon taking office in 2009, President Obama ramped up attacks against al-Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, the Horn of Africa, and elsewhere.  However, despite claims by the Obama administration that al-Qaeda is “on the ropes” or that “the tide of war is receding,” affiliated groups like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are a growing presence in the Middle East and Africa, and continue to plot attacks against the United States and its partners.

The Rise of China and Tomorrow's World

As China’s economic and military might grows, its increasingly assertive foreign policy has raised concerns throughout the region and the world.

  • China is emerging as a strategic competitor.  It has blocked the U.N. Security Council from imposing further sanction on Iran‘s rogue nuclear activities, and Syria‘s atrocities against civilian protestors. It has shown an unwillingness to exert significant pressure on North Korea, even when Pyongyang takes provocative actions with regard to its nuclear weapons and missile programs.  China is embroiled with neighbors in territorial and maritime disputes in the East China Sea and South China Sea, and is targeting Taiwan with growing arsenal of ballistic missiles aimed at denying U.S. naval and air forces the access needed to rapidly respond to a military contingency.

Although the United States is attempting to “rebalance” towards the Asia Pacific, the Obama administration’s pre-sequestration budget may not provide enough resources to fully implement America’s military reemphasis on the region.

  • It is clear that sequestration on defense spending would make it exceedingly difficult for the United States to reassure Asian allies about America’s ability to maintain its dominant security position in the region.  Indeed, many of U.S. partners have quietly expressed concerns about America’s staying power in Asia, and some may be starting to hedge.

FPI Resources

  • The Price of Power – FPI Director Robert Kagan – The Weekly Standard – January 24, 2011

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
Read More