Shadow Government

Obama's chance to clarify national security policy

Signals from the White House indicate that President Obama's State of the Union (SOTU) address tomorrow night will focus heavily on domestic and economic policy. Understandably so, as domestic and economic issues spurred the GOP's massive Congressional gains, and remain the nation's predominant concerns. The SOTU is President Obama's best platform to regain the political initiative and point the country towards his preferred course over the next two years.

Yet the president should not neglect national security policy in the SOTU, for two reasons. First, while the American people are his primary audience, we are not his only audience. Foreign leaders -- friends, foes, and fence-sitters alike -- will be watching keenly for signs from Obama about strategic priorities and U.S. resolve. Second, while domestic and economic policy has thus far defined this presidency, the future by its nature will surprise, and national security could reemerge as a defining concern.

Here are three issues President Obama should address tomorrow night:

Afghanistan. The administration continues to send conflicting and conflicted signals about the Afghanistan war and the meaning of July 2011 as a "drawdown" date. As Peter Feaver has argued, the White House's rhetorical neglect of Afghanistan threatens to erode tenuous public support. Meanwhile, key actors -- ranging from our NATO allies, India, and the Afghan people and government to Pakistan and the Taliban -- all remain uncertain about the United States' commitment to success in the Afghan mission. And all will in their own ways hedge accordingly. The Congressional audience tomorrow night will be essential for supporting and continuing to fund the war effort -- and needs to know it is a priority for the president. Most important, U.S. forces currently deployed in theater need to hear from their commander-in-chief that he is resolved to see their efforts through.

Iran. When the governments of Israel, the United States, and Iran all say the same thing, it is probably true. So it seems to be the case that the Stuxnet virus has degraded Iran's uranium enrichment capability and thus delayed the clock on its nuclear weapons program.  Yet if anything these setbacks have only exacerbated Iranian intransigence at the negotiating table. And a perpetual concern with the cagey Iranian regime is the "unknown unknowns" -- such as the possibility of other uranium enrichment sites, as yet undiscovered and undeclared. In short, the Iranian nuclear program remains a front-burner concern, and how it is handled will define in part the Obama administration's foreign policy legacy. President Obama should make clear tomorrow night to the United States' P-5 plus 1 partners, to Israel, and to the Iranian regime that he remains resolved that Iran will not develop nuclear weapons. And as February's anniversary of the Iranian revolution approaches, he should also make clear to the Iranian people that the United States supports their desire for liberty.

Al Qaeda. This year will witness the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Remarkably, al Qaeda has not since succeeded in another large-scale attack on U.S. soil. As unfathomable as this fact would have seemed in the weeks following 9/11, it is no accident but rather stems from the vigilance of the Bush administration and subsequently the Obama administration in pursuing aggressive counterterrorism policies. Policies which, as Stephen Carter of Yale Law School argues in his most recent book, the Obama team may have denounced during their campaign but have adopted and expanded while in office. Yet Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri remain at large, al Qaeda remains viable and dangerous, and threats continue against the United States and our allies. President Obama should remind the nation that while we are safer we are not safe, and should remind al Qaeda's leadership that our commitment to defeat it remains undiminished.

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Shadow Government

The State of the Union and the Pentagon's influence: tips for Obama

All senior agency heads in the U.S. government, as well as second, third, and fourth tier officials, try their hardest to inject at least a sentence into the State of the Union address. It is the shortcut for ensuring that their pet policy initiatives at least see the light of day, even if they are not brought to fruition. This year's address will be no different, and for those concerned about national security, what the president says, and what he does not say, will be of the utmost importance.

As senior DoD leaders are already pointing out, the upcoming fiscal year, FY 2012, marks an inflection point in defense spending. There have four such points since World War II: those after that war, Korea and Vietnam, marked the end of major conflict. The fourth, like the one anticipated for the next fiscal year, was the product of domestic economic pressures and growing deficits. How far the defense budget ultimately declines will very much depend on not only the budget levels predicted for FY 12, but for the following five years as well. The president should be cautious about specific budget targets beyond the upcoming fiscal year; a signal of further anticipated declines could send misleading signals to the United States' adversaries about the degree of her determination to confront them at any future time.

The president should, on the other hand, throw his weight behind key DoD initiatives, notably Tricare reform. Secretary of Defense Gates has made the strongest case for increasing Tricare charges; the president should back him up, and do so forcefully.

The president should clarify how he views the future of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. The signals remain mixed. There is worldwide confusion over what is meant by withdrawal of forces later this year, what is planned for 2014, what the U.S. posture in Afghanistan will be subsequent to that date. At the same time the president should make it clear that the United States will continue to acquire forces that will enable it to meet any adversary, anywhere. The message to Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela and others of their ilk should be unambiguous. 

The president should also make it clear that the United States will maintain its robust forward presence, and that budget cuts will not affect that presence at all. Anything less will send the wrong message to China, and particularly to those of its hawks who keep reiterating that the United States is a declining power.

Finally, the president should propose a new structure for addressing contingencies that would render "whole-of-government" more than a mere catchphrase. Secretaries Gates and Clinton have already made this case to Congress; the president should support them forcefully and unambiguously.

The United States is still in the midst of a difficult economic crisis. It is one that worries friends and that adversaries hope to exploit. A strong presidential message that whatever the United States' current difficulties, it is determined to maintain its leading place in the global security community, and that it is willing to expend precious resources to do so, would be one that will be welcomed by the vast majority of his Capitol Hill audience, and by the country he leads.

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