FPI Bulletin: Will Obama Finish Strong on Iran, Terror, and Defense?

January 15, 2015

When President Obama delivers his penultimate State of the Union address on January 20, he will address a world in which his foreign policy is under unprecedented assault and a Congress that is skeptical of his leadership.  We hope that the President will seize this opportunity to propose new, bipartisan initiatives to tackle the nuclear standoff with Iran, the fight against Islamist terrorism, and the need to restore defense spending.  

First, the President should work with Congress to compel Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.  The administration has indicated this week that Mr. Obama will again threaten to veto bipartisan legislation to impose new sanctions on Iran if it keeps trying to run out the clock on nuclear negotiations.  This is a mistake.

Although the Joint Plan of Action was intended to be a six-month deal, the administration has now extended talks twice through June 2015.  In the meantime, Tehran has pursued its development of advanced centrifuges, illicitly procured materials for the Arak nuclear reactor, and stonewalled the International Atomic Energy Agency’s investigation into possible military dimensions of its nuclear program. At the same time, Iran’s economy has enjoyed a significant rebound.  Day by day, the Obama administration is losing leverage at the negotiating table.

A bipartisan majority within Congress knows that Iran compromises only when it faces a price for being stubborn.  The legislation that Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) are reportedly preparing would back up the June 30 deadline for a comprehensive agreement with the promise of renewed sanctions if Iran continues to act in bad faith. This proposal will provide the leverage that Mr. Obama’s negotiators now lack.  A combination of pressure and diplomacy was necessary to bring Iran to the table, and it remains our best prospect of securing an acceptable agreement.

Second, President Obama should recommit the United States to defeating al Qaeda, ISIS, and their global affiliates.  In the almost two years since President Obama declared that the United States must not pursue “a boundless global war on terror,” Islamist terrorists have seized vast swaths of territory and launched barbarous attacks across the world.  Reversing this trend will require bold new action.

The President should reaffirm his commitment to “degrade, and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, even if doing so requires a far larger force than the 3,000 troops he has authorized for the task. Privately, U.S. officials already concede that the American effort is insufficient, while the United States has ceded leadership in the fight against ISIS to Iran and its proxies.  A realistic strategy will require additional efforts, including American advisors and air controllers to target ISIS, rebuild a non-sectarian Iraqi army, and develop Syria’s moderate opposition as an alternative to both ISIS and Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

In Afghanistan, President Obama should state clearly that he will not end America’s military commitment as long as our Afghan allies are threatened by the Taliban, al Qaeda, and other extremist groups.  Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has called on Mr. Obama to re-examine the administration’s plan to withdraw all U.S. troops by the end of 2016, warning that “deadlines should not be dogma.”  At a time when Afghan troops and civilians are suffering record casualties, the President should not adhere to an arbitrary, self-imposed deadline that would abandon our Afghan allies.

Finally, the President should expand the scope of a planned February summit to establish what former Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (ID-CT) has described as “a global alliance against radical Islam.”  As long as these terrorist groups grow their territory and expand their reach, they will become more lethal.  Defeating this global threat will require a global strategy – the President must articulate and execute one.

Finally, the President should work with Congress to reverse the $1 trillion in cuts now being made to the defense budget.  There is a growing consensus that the deep defense spending cuts contained in the Budget Control Act of 2011 are placing our military at unacceptable risk.  In fact, the Defense Department is estimated to face a shortfall of between $200 and $300 billion over the next five years compared to the requirements set forth by the administration for personnel, modernization, and other critical accounts.

Because our military undergirds American leadership around the globe, a sizable increase in the defense budget will not only correct this dangerous shortfall, but increase the credibility of American policy toward Iran, terrorism, and every other challenge Washington faces. The President should seize this issue and challenge Congress to restore defense funding to at least the levels proposed by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates four years ago.

In his final news conference of 2014, President Obama noted that “my presidency is entering its fourth quarter,” suggesting that the time has come for bold efforts.  If Mr. Obama takes decisive action on these three issues in the remainder of his term, he still has the opportunity to halt the setbacks of the past year and greatly improve the world that his successor will inherit.

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