With the presidential primaries ending this week, it’s time to focus on the general election and the key national security challenges that the next president will face. Over the next three columns, I will outline what national security issues I think the candidates should be debating.
But first, a cynical observation that comes from spending too much time on presidential campaigns over the years: Sadly, the coming campaign will most likely be a shadow play rather than a discussion about how the United States should deal with its fundamental security issues over the next decade. Typically, campaigns focus on the marginal, pump up the trivial, and search for personal weaknesses. Assuming that Illinois Sen. Barack Obama will be the Democratic nominee and Arizona Sen. John McCain will be the Republican nominee, the media will almost certainly focus with laser-like precision on core issues such as age, experience, religious associates, race, spouses, health, and other heretofore undiscovered irrelevant minutia.
The current national security debate is wildly off the mark. Instead of looking ahead, we’re looking backward: Terrorism, WMDs, and Iraq dominate the national security agenda.”
That said, it’s important that we tune out this white noise, because the current national security debate is wildly off the mark. Instead of looking ahead, we’re looking backward. Terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and the Iraq War dominate the national security agenda. As such, we’re trapped in a rhetoric of fear and the language of threats. It’s critically important to leave this rhetoric behind; otherwise, we’ll never find a solution to any of the challenges we face, leaving us to continue to cower behind an overtaxed military, the only instrument of U.S. power we think can do the job.
Before addressing the underlying challenges the new president will face, let’s make a few assumptions:
Now, the challenges. By my count there are a total of five, which are interrelated. They include:
In many ways, these challenges are mutually reinforcing. The economic challenges reinforce the weaknesses in governance and exacerbate underlying identity conflicts. Regional powers may seek to exploit terrorist capabilities to extend their influence or try to shape new economic or security regimes that don’t involve the United States. Each of the five challenges is also massive, surpassing the ability of any single country to find solutions or provide the resources that can shape the solution.
Beginning in January, the next administration needs to come to grips with these challenges. Not one of them can be ignored, and they must be treated together. The new president also must recognize that unilateral efforts to impose U.S. national security policies will fail and accelerate the deterioration of global U.S. leadership, making it impossible for Washington to influence the way in which these challenges should be addressed.
The solutions must be multilateral at home, too, as these challenges demand that the next president devise policies that cut across U.S. national security institutional boundaries. This means we can only deal with them by strengthening the entire toolkit of U.S. statecraft, ending the practice of employing the military in every area of national security policy, and taking a different approach to the way in which the White House is organized and leads the national security policy process.
In my next two columns, I will deal with this requirement for the transformation of the U.S. national security toolkit to confront these challenges.
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