National Security Tests for the Next President

By Sandra I. Erwin
Republican presidential candidates have blasted the Obama White House for its handling of foreign crises and for weakening the military. But few, if any, potential nominees have put forth any concrete policy prescriptions.

Talk is cheap on the campaign trail, especially on issues like military strategy and defense planning. Over the coming months, presidential hopefuls will continue to badger the current administration for making the nation vulnerable, alienating allies and emboldening enemies. Meanwhile, members of the Washington foreign policy establishment — as they generally do in advance of every presidential election — are looking to bring a dose of sanity into the debate.

Russian aggression in Ukraine; the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria; and the expansion of other violent extremist groups in the Middle East, South Asia and Africa have sparked worries that current American responses are inadequate, although no consensus has yet emerged around any alternative.

Panic and hysteria aside, the world is not falling apart and none of the current foreign crises are beyond the United States’ ability to manage, says James Dobbins, former U.S. ambassador and leader of a RAND Corp. project called “Choices for America in a Turbulent World.”

For the next president, the challenge will be setting priorities and balancing resources at a time of declining military budgets, suggests Dobbins, who along with a group of RAND analysts will be part of a cadre of think tanks that will seek to inject some level-headedness into the political discourse on national security.

Despite mounting chaos in the Middle East that has fed wider, more-exaggerated anxieties, on balance, predictions of disaster are overstated, he says. “Prior eras have seen much greater shifts in the global power balance than those underway today.”

America will come under pressure to make strategic foreign policy choices on multiple fronts, Dobbins says. “The problems the United States faces today are not greater in scale than those it mastered in the past.” Dealing with future crises, he says, will require efforts comparable to those made in decades past.

Chaos in the Middle East, Russian intervention in neighboring states, Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, climate change and a decline in U.S. military readiness have raised fresh questions about how America envisions its role in the world.

“Many feel that the pace of technological change is quickening, that the international order is disintegrating, that power is shifting from national governments to individuals and non-state actors, and that America’s capacity to lead is waning,” says the report. But it notes that the alarming rhetoric about the United States losing influence in the world is not grounded in reality.

In a briefing on Capitol Hill, Dobbins puts the campaign rhetoric in perspective. The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria indeed is a new, difficult and rather horrifying phenomenon, he says. But horrific violence in the Middle East is not unprecedented and has been dealt with successfully in the past.

The next president, no matter what the crisis at hand, will have to make decisions based on the fact that the United States is still the world’s dominant economic power and in a position to lead, as no other nation has yet emerged to step into the superpower role.

The question of how to counter ISIS should morph into a larger discussion on how the United States should combat terrorist groups, and whether current resources are adequate. The next administration might weigh options such as combining aggressive attacks on terrorist networks with non-kinetic efforts like community outreach and counter-radicalization messaging, or escalating the conflict from airstrikes to ground combat in Iraq and, eventually, Syria. Dobbins wonders if, at some point, the United States will need to decide how narrowly or broadly to identify terrorist enemies — as groups that threaten the homeland or also those that target U.S. friends and allies.

Another national preoccupation that needs more focus is cyber warfare, the RAND report says. The United States increasingly will be looked upon to lead in this area, including efforts to promote international norms in the cyber battleground or to step up the U.S. cyber weapons arsenal to deter state and non-state attackers.

But the most intractable international crisis looming for future U.S. leaders is how to tackle climate change, Dobbins says. “It’s probably the biggest single challenge the next administration will face.” Predictions of climate-related disasters have become more ominous, more imminent and more credible. And it is not a problem that the United States can address unilaterally because it is a global crisis that will require every state to collaborate, he adds. A future president could choose to move in several directions: Take the lead and drag other countries along in reducing emissions, continue to operate within global UN sponsored systems or go for bilateral and regional deals.

The climate dilemma is a reminder that the United States will have to work and collaborate with unfriendly nations like Russia. “We need Russia’s cooperation on Iran, Syria, climate change. What’s the balance between containing and cooperating?” Dobbins asks.

Future judgment calls on defense and foreign policy also will have to take fiscal concerns into account. The next president will inherit a smaller and less-combat ready military force, RAND warns. Even if Congress approves Obama’s proposed defense funding over the next several years, the defense budget as a proportion of gross domestic product soon will reach its lowest level in more than 50 years. Under the funding caps set by Congress, military spending would drop from the current 3.5 to 2.3 percent of GDP by 2023.

On defense spending, the next administration and Congress cannot continue to kick the can much longer, and will have to decide how much military power the nation can realistically afford.

Topics: Counterinsurgency, International

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