5 national security issues we should be talking about
August 24th, 2012
01:55 PM ET

5 national security issues we should be talking about

By Brian Katulis, Special to CNN

Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where his work focuses on U.S. national security policy in the Middle East and South Asia. The views expressed are his own

America’s 2012 presidential election has so far generated more heat than light on foreign policy – angry sounding exchanges on “issues” such as the allegations of intelligence leaks by the Obama administration and Mitt Romney’s unforced errors on an overseas trip this summer have garnered more attention than what the next president is going to face in the world.  Occasionally, the candidates have found time to make a few substantive points about the Afghanistan war and Iran’s nuclear program, but the major national security questions facing the country have not been high on the agenda.

And, barring an unexpected international crisis, we’re not likely to see much focus on foreign policy through November. With most voters focused on the economy and domestic issues in 2012, the campaigns and independent advocacy groups are spending most of their money and time on that front. The schedule for the Republican National Convention in Tampa next week has very little focus on national security – a sharp shift from the past three conventions.

It’s not uncommon for national political campaigns to oversimplify or skim over the big foreign policy questions. But looking beyond country specific policies on China, Iran, and Syria, there are five broader national security issues that the Republicans (and Democrats) should be talking about next week:

1. Getting our spending priorities in order. The old, clichéd “guns versus butter” debate is very much alive, up in the air, and likely to get worse. Immediately after the election, the country will face urgent budget questions – the Congressional Budget Office warned this week that the economy would fall back into a recession and unemployment would rise if Congress did not act to stop automatic budget cuts and tax increases. Tied up in this budget question is the defense sequestration issue – the prospect of automatic cuts to defense, along with other agencies. President Obama has signaled that he wants to increase investments at home to keep America strong abroad, while Mitt Romney has a different plan on defense spending. America’s leadership role in the world should be an important part of this debate. A top U.S. military official recently told me in a private discussion that America’s inability to resolve this budget debate is having a negative impact on our power and ability to get things done in the world– if we can’t deal with the issues most relevant to our own citizens and taxpayer money, how can we do anything about the world’s problems?

Beyond this immediate challenge, leaders in Washington will need to deal with larger issues on the horizon – a major fiscal crunch looming with the retiring Baby Boomer generation. How America deals with this issue will directly impact the U.S. ability to project power and remain a leader in the world. After a decade of costly, large-scale ground wars in two countries and operations in several other countries costing about $2 trillion, unpaid-for tax cuts, and a financial crash followed by a weak recovery, the United States faces the difficult task of rebalancing its priorities to make needed investments in its own future while effectively and efficiently defending its national interests abroad. How the United States rebalances in the short run will have a significant impact on its long-run national security. Failing to advance fundamental defense and national security reform and continuing to make low investments in domestic priorities such as education, infrastructure, and research and development may ultimately erode American economic strength and human capital – the ultimate sources of power – over the long term.

2. Rebalancing America’s geopolitical focus. The Obama administration has taken the first steps toward shifting the strategic focus of U.S. national security concerns from its current heavy investment in the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region. However, many details of how to execute this rebalance remain undeveloped. How does America rebalance its overall portfolio? What military and diplomatic resources will the United States need in the short term to fully realize the strategic rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region while mitigating potential risks in the Middle East at the same time it rebalances between domestic and national security priorities? Determining the answers to these and similar questions will assist the effort to rebalance between domestic priorities and foreign policy issues after a decade of overwhelming focus on the latter.

3. Reforming the global economic architecture. For the past five years, the world has stood at the brink of economic collapse – showing the shortcoming in an outmoded global economic system. The financial crash of 2008, ongoing Eurozone crisis, substandard economic recoveries in the United States and other countries, and continuing domestic anxiety about trade have combined to discredit the principles of free capital and goods movement that have dominated international political economy since the 1980s. Despite the failure of the old international economic order, no prominent new ideas on how to re-structure the global economy to be more stable and fair have yet emerged much less been adopted.

4. The new strategy for combating terrorist networks. The Obama administration smartly abandoned the “global war on terror” framework in its strategic communications, and it adopted a much more effective strategy to deal with the threats posed by al Qaeda and its affiliates – with more targeted strikes using drones and special operations forces in the U.S. military. In dozens of countries around the world, U.S. intelligence operatives and Special Forces from the military are operating largely in the shadows to deal with multiple threats. This new approach – quite different from the Bush administration’s “shock and awe” approach – has produced real results. But some have raised the question of whether this current approach amounts to a sustainable strategy – given the risks of potential blowback, the lack of transparency, and the questions of how societies create more lasting solutions.

5. Cybersecurity.Last but not least is an issue that is sorely in need of leadership in Washington – proposed efforts to enhance America’s defenses against cyber attacks were blocked in Congress this summer, even as a wide range of national security experts continue to highlight the risks to America’s infrastructure, economy, and overall security.

The next president will face a wide range of challenges on foreign policy – some will be focused on specific countries like North Korea and Iran, and other unexpected challenges will come up. But these five issues are one worth deeper discussion this fall.

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Topics: Military • Terrorism • United States

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soundoff (38 Responses)
  1. Robert Esseltine

    Thank you. No mention of political parties. Straight up questions and current situations leave me the freedom to think without the writer dictating my course of thought. That is journalism. Thank you...again.

    August 24, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      The US might be one of the countries in the world that know freedom and democracy and it wants to protect these ideas at all costs. Yet this package can't be delivered everywhere in the world, as in some cultures – unfortunately – the two ideas don't always go hand in hand. Freedom is a lack of restriction on how one can act. In absence of this restriction we see – in some cases and ironically – anarchy. Democracy is a voice in collective decisions, but it won't protect one's freedom if the majority is hostile to the way one chooses to live.

      August 26, 2012 at 6:16 am | Reply
      • Joseph McCarthy

        Wrong, j.von hettlingen. Today the U.S. and it's NATO cronies are interested in but one thing only and that is big business, not this so-called "freedom and democracy" as so belly-hooed. That's why we're in Afghanistan since a treasure trove of underground mineral resources have been discovered there!

        August 27, 2012 at 8:43 am |
  2. deniz boro

    Yep. cyber-terror is doing over-time. If you ask me, they are only trying to spread malice and disinformation on any issue. It's not even the known Hackers we somehow got accustomed to. (the targets, means et cetera). These mean unrest and disorder in the global internet medium at random. To people who knows whats going on they cause a slight confusion. Please varify your facts if they come from an unknown source at least. And well those people who claim to be decent "informed internet users of alternative means" here is one job you can do for the global community. I hope you are up to it.

    August 24, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Reply
  3. Buck O'Fama

    Unlike Robert, I found several errors plus a bad assumption created by bias. I'm not a Mitt man. I'm a Palinista and voted for Newt in the primary.
    The intelligence leaks exist, there is no allegation, just the facts. Any farther action would require impeachment and the GOP doesn't have the votes. Then there is the Biden factor.
    Romney made no gaffs in Europe. Nobody in the 57 United Sates heard a gaff. Romney said things the far left members of the media dogging him didn't like. THAT is all that happened.
    Foreign Policy DOES NOT MATTER.
    So long as the USA has a robust economic engine, the Furreniers will do as they are told. Remember Sister Mary? You did what she told you to or you got clouted alongside your ear. This is a tried and true foreign policy that has worked for dozens of countries for thousands of years. This is the foreign policy China and Russia would use if they replaced the USA.

    So naturally, with that much agu-prop in the first 2 paragraphs, I didn't bother to see how much trash was in the rest.

    Haji can't shoot

    August 24, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Reply
    • David

      Moronic and typical of the new "no nothings"

      August 24, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Reply
    • Justin

      They took er jobs!!!!!!!!!!!

      August 24, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Reply
    • Johnofthelittlepeople

      57 United States?

      August 26, 2012 at 1:32 am | Reply
  4. Marine5484

    The foremost issue here that we need to talk about is getting out of all these useless and unnecessary wars that we're currently fighting! These wars have absolutely nothing to do with our national security nor any of our rights or freedoms! The only reason that we're currently at war is to promote the political careers of these right-wing politicians and fatten up the bank accounts of the Washington bureaucrats!

    August 24, 2012 at 7:24 pm | Reply
    • dana

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      March 24, 2013 at 1:42 pm | Reply
  5. krm1007 ©™

    We now need to focus on India. The American invasion of Afghanistan brought to the forefront the irrelevance of India as a nation. With a population of over 1.2 billion people there was no value that this nation could bring to the table. Their soldiers (ragtag) 1.2 million continue hiding in the trenches scared from Talibans. A few teenage Talibans invaded the country and held it hostage for days on end showing how useless India is. It was embarrasing for the world to observe this humiliation of a nation that was being touted as a regional power.

    I continue to read with interest the thesis presented on CNN that "less is more" in a political context as applied to India. Although Mies Van Der Rohe adopted this in an architectural context, its economic and political connotations are indeed powerful. Empowering subjugated minorities in India by splitting it into smaller states would trigger uber economic demand for western nations who have given so much financial and technology aid to India with no return to show for the investment. I concur with this approach and with an economic background find the premise to be on solid footing. Central Asian States (CAS) are a case in point on this successful approach. We need to understand that India has an unmanageable large population mired in poverty and we are spinning our wheels trying to feed it. It is also too big of a geographical unit to govern. Again, we saw how a few teenage talibans were able to invade it with a few BB guns. And that says a lot... in a negative way not only for a large unmanageable country like India but also for USA which is trying to prop it up against China. Besides, Americans cannot afford to look like losers in the midst of a terror war which has lasted for over ten years now.

    August 24, 2012 at 8:41 pm | Reply
  6. str8Vision

    The number 1 threat to the national security of the United States is our "vote for sale" political system. Legislation and policy passed by our elected officials to appease the corporations and special interest groups who "own" them created all the tangible threats our country now suffers.

    August 25, 2012 at 12:13 pm | Reply
  7. joe anon 1

    u.s. national security threats are all internal. israel is a threat but is included in the internal category, 'jewry".

    August 25, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      Quite true joe, quite true indeed!

      August 25, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Reply
      • Joseph McCarthy/Quigley/LyndsieGraham/krm1007©™/Joe Collins/J. Foster Dulles/Marine5484/OldManClark

        I am the same guy. I am a useless piece of camel dung. I post anti-American, anti GB, anti-Semite, anti-India, anti-modern anything because I am a good Moslem. I have stolen Patrick’s moniker because I am so ashamed of myself and I post the most stupid comments because I am an imbecile. Mohammed the pedophile has taught me well. When people get angry with me, I claim they are the stupid ones. If I am not careful, my brain will explode because it is so full of hate and puss.

        August 25, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
  8. gbnt73

    I take issue with #4. What does teh authro think was the "strategy" in teh Bush Administration and the "new strategy?" The GWOT label was just a label - but it did say what we were doing. The "Overseas Contingency Operations" is just a name change, and it happens to be utterly uninformative as to what it is for. Obama did not do anything that was not already on teh table - he just chose to make a speech about Iraq in early 2008 stating what was already an agreed-upon (negotiated) time table. Now, he did decide to do something different with Afghanistan, which is it essentially admit that we are incapable of producing desired social change in that part of the world. "Drone strikes" are easy and safe from a domestic-political cycle perspective - which is the primary mover for the Obama administration's actions. As for the "produces real results" link to a CAP advertisement for the Obama campaign - the President cannot take credit for the previous decade of pursuing UBL. Any president would have done the same when the operation had reached the execution stage, except for Clinton. He passed on it at least once.. But, overall, this is what it looks like when your think-tank's ideology trumps history and facts.

    August 26, 2012 at 8:41 am | Reply
  9. Matt A.

    We should be discussing– time– as an issue, since we seem to utilizing so little of it in dealing seriously with the five important issues.

    Politics is the art of buying time, or solidifying incompetence.

    August 26, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Reply
  10. deniz boro

    I do not care for a s..t well penny on the security issues. I care about how you will feed the people. Not on the chestboard, but, in reality. It will take another Middle Age Crusader act towards the East. How very predictable and easy to repeat.

    August 26, 2012 at 8:40 pm | Reply
  11. kc

    How could developing energy resources not have been at the top of this list? Energy resources are never just an energy issue it is impossible toi gnore that enegy independance and the ability to export more than you import secures a nation's world standing,and vasltley curbs dependance.

    August 28, 2012 at 11:39 am | Reply
  12. deniz boro

    Guess Turkey at least is setting the foundations of a reasonable system now.

    October 16, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Reply
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