Global Public Square

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.