CNAS Commentary: A Bipartisan National Security Agenda for an Election Year

  • February 25, 2016
  • Michele Flournoy, Richard Fontaine
  • Commentaries

As the country turns its attention to the Democratic and Republican primaries, it is tempting to assume that the United States should postpone any bold national security moves until the next administration takes office. A new president will arrive with a fresh team, new ideas, a political mandate, and allies in Congress. 

Yet the world does not abide by American election cycles and to turn this election year into an extended waiting period would be a major mistake. 

Instead, our national leaders should undertake a number of major steps that will both enhance America’s security and prosperity and set up the new presidential administration for foreign policy success. In spite of the deep political divisions in this most political of years, there exists a national security agenda that should garner the support of Republicans and Democrats, in the administration and Congress:

Approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal and make progress on a transatlantic trade agreement. The TPP would provide a needed boost to the American economy and greatly strengthen the United States’ strategic position in Asia, while its defeat would represent a disastrous signal of American disengagement from Asia. Congress should approve the TPP this year and the administration should press hard for progress on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, generating momentum toward trade liberalization that a new administration can embrace from the outset.

Strengthen key allies and partners. Provocations from the likes of Iran, Russia, China, and North Korea have threatened the rules-based order in several regions and prompted countries under threat to seek greater assistance from the United States. Washington should renew the U.S.-Israel security memorandum of understanding, provide Ukraine with the training and equipment required to defend itself, propose an integrated missile defense system for the Gulf Cooperation Council members, and deploy theater missile defenses in South Korea to protect against Pyongyang’s growing threats. Some partners require more financial assistance as well, including Ukraine and Jordan, which is hosting an enormous population of Syrian refugees.

Recommit to Afghanistan. President Obama was right to push off the planned withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, and the administration should take the next step and rescind its calendar-based withdrawal plan entirely. The United States should commit to a long-term military, diplomatic, and intelligence presence in Afghanistan that will help keep al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Islamic State at bay; further strengthen the Afghan security forces; and preserve hard-won gains in that fragile country.

Intensify the fight against the Islamic State. The coalition has made some progress against the Islamic State, but the combination of terrorist threats and humanitarian outrages demands a significant intensification of U.S. efforts. This should include expanding the number of special operators working with local forces in Syria and Iraq and embedding forces in key Iraq units. Forward air controllers should be permitted to call in airstrikes and U.S. special operations forces should assist in direct military action against key Islamic State strongholds. And as Washington pursues political unity in Libya, it should take on the significant number of Islamic State fighters who have sought sanctuary there. Lastly, the administration should step up its efforts to prevent ISIS’ spread including countering their digital recruiting and messaging efforts and supporting de-radicalization and community resilience programs.

Pursue a bottom-up approach to Syria. The current effort to resolve the Syrian civil war aims to implement the recently-brokered ceasefire agreement and then pursue a political transition. Yet the pursuit of a brokered, national-level unity government made up of groups that will stop fighting each other, and instead turn their guns on the Islamic State and al Nusra, is highly unlikely to bear fruit in the near future. Instead, Washington should lead an international effort to establish security for vulnerable populations in expanding stretches of territory. This requires dramatically increasing training and equipping groups opposed both to ISIS and Assad and working with them to clear and hold ground. The administration should also urgently work with coalition partners to establish safe zones in Syria that would protect civilians and permit opposition forces to regroup.

Build on recent developments in energy. Congress last year lifted the longtime ban on exports of crude oil and the United States is in the position to become a significant exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG). Despite the fall in energy prices, these export developments represent real opportunities. The administration should move quickly to license and approve new LNG export capacity when demand rebounds and explore ways to increase the energy security of those in Europe at the mercy of Russian gas supplies. In the wake of the Paris climate change accord, the administration should also focus on climate change adaptation and mitigation at home and with foreign partners, focusing in particular on holding national governments accountable for their emissions reductions targets and on strategies to attract public and private capital to help the most vulnerable countries cope with climate change.

Strike a bipartisan budget deal that permanently rescinds sequestration. Despite a recent respite from the mayhem of the Budget Control Act, several years of living under the uncertainty of government shutdowns, sequestration, and short-term continuing resolutions have disrupted the ability to plan, prepare, and budget for an increasingly challenging security environment in which threats abound. Given the turmoil across the globe and the growing demand for U.S. leadership, the reality is that spending across defense, diplomacy, and development needs to grow and be more predictable.

All of this may be a tall order in an environment so bitterly divided. Yet there have been real bipartisan successes in recent months: Democrats and Republicans struck a mini budget deal to forestall sequestration, passed trade promotion authority, approved the export of oil, reauthorized the Export-Import Bank, agreed to sanction North Korea and Iran, and adopted a package of support to international financial institutions. Progress is possible.

And the last year of a lame duck administration hasn’t always portended inaction. George H.W. Bush in 1992 concluded major arms reduction agreements with Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan and officially declared an end to the Cold War. Bill Clinton in 2000 won Congressional approval for permanent normal trade relations with China. George W. Bush’s administration made major strides toward the landmark civil nuclear agreement with India during its final year. Other administrations made major efforts toward Middle East peace and initiated humanitarian interventions.

The hard reality is that the country – and the world – can’t afford to wait a year for bold action. An America that is visibly leading, globally present, and setting the agenda is the best antidote to turmoil and strife. It also raises the chances that the next president, whoever the candidate, will be better positioned to protect and advance America’s security. Surely our leaders can agree on that. 

For more information, please contact Neal Urwitz at nurwitz@cnas.org or 202-457-9409.