January 20, 2015

CNAS Commentaries: What the President Should Say at the State of the Union


In advance of today's State of the Union address, experts from the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) have produced a series of recommendations for what the President should say about key issue areas. Below, please find an advance copy of CNAS experts’ recommendations on the following topics.

  • CNAS President Richard Fontaine discusses how the President can work with Republicans on national security issues
  • Middle East Security Program Director Ilan Goldenberg discusses Iran
  • Energy, Economics, and Security Program Director Elizabeth Rosenberg discusses the falling price of oil
  • 20YY Warfare Initiative Director Paul Scharre discusses the defense budget
  • Asia Program Deputy Director Ely Ratner discusses Asia Policy
  • Robert M. Gates Fellow Elbridge Colby discusses reforming the U.S. nuclear arsenal
  • Middle East Security Program Research Associate Nicholas Heras discuss ISIS
  • Bacevich Fellow Jacob Stokes discusses the National Security Strategy
  • Military, Veterans, and Society Program Research Associate Katherine Kidder discusses veterans issues
  • Adjunct Senior Fellow Zachary Goldman discusses the growing use of sanctions as a tool of U.S. security strategy

Please find the commentaries below:

Richard Fontaine on Working with Republicans: The world has changed since President Obama gave his last State of the Union Address. In the past year Russia invaded Ukraine, America has taken military action in Iraq and Syria, and a resurgent al Qaeda is attempting to best its Islamic State rivals in attacking the West. Meeting these and other national security challenges demands a measure of political unity at home, despite our divided government.

President Obama could use this year’s address to articulate the case for a new American internationalism, one that wins the support of Republicans and Democrats alike.  Many in the new congressional majority would support moving forward with reversing sequestration and enhancing America’s military power; passing trade promotion authority and then the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement; rescinding the calendar-based withdrawal of American forces in Afghanistan in favor of one based on conditions; lifting the self-imposed restriction on American combat forces in Iraq; meaningfully aiding the moderate Syrian rebels and the government of Ukraine; and working more closely with security and economic partners across Asia. 

Each of these steps would require America to step forward and not back, and to take action sooner rather than later.  America cannot afford to pause its vigorous international leadership while Democrats and Republicans squabble at home.  On Tuesday night, President Obama can set the tone for a unified internationalism that serves both America and the world. 

Ilan Goldenberg on Iran: The President’s message on Iran will be closely watched by the leadership in Tehran, skeptical members of Congress, and anxious Arab and Israeli partners. The President should start by making clear that the Islamic Republic should not let the historic opportunity presented by the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 pass by. He should offer Tehran assurances that in the event of an agreement the United States will live up to its obligations and that over time the sanctions will be lifted and Iran will be economically reintegrated into the world. 

However, the President should be more guarded about Iran’s broader role in the region – such as his statement recently that if there was an agreement, Iran could potentially be a “very successful regional power.” Such statements cause anxiety among our Middle Eastern allies who are concerned that an agreement between the United States and Iran on the nuclear issue could result in America abandoning the region to Tehran. They also cause Iranian hardliners to miscalculate and wrongly conclude that the United States is so eager to enlist Iran’s help against ISIS that it will make concessions on the nuclear program. 

The President should make crystal clear to Congress that he will only agree to a deal that will effectively cutoff all of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon. If he comes to the conclusion that Iran is negotiating in bad faith or has unfrozen its nuclear program, he will seek harsher sanctions. But if Congress passes new sanctions before the end of the next negotiating deadline he will veto the legislation. 

Elizabeth Rosenberg on the Falling Price of Oil: This year must be a pivotal one on energy policy. The dramatic fall in oil prices over the last six months, by almost 60 percent, and the economic and political fallout that will occur in this country and abroad compound the serious need for Presidential leadership on energy now.

At present, U.S. consumers are relieved by lower gasoline prices, economic planners are enthusiastically anticipating a GDP bump, and security strategists appreciate the extra pressure this puts on rogue states. However there are worrying future effects of this drop. Eventually, lower prices will clip U.S. energy investment, technology innovation, trade leverage and our global energy edge. 

Internationally, the loss in revenue can undermine economic solvency and stability in major energy producing states such as Venezuela, Iraq, Nigeria and Russia, with potential strategic implications for the United States. Also, our allies in Europe and Northeast Asia will be less secure as the U.S. energy sector pulls back. For these allies, a robust U.S. energy sector promises a more stable global oil market and the potential to buy oil that does not traverse conflict zones or geographic hot spots. 

President Obama should promote responsible development of crude oil, gas, renewables and energy efficiency technology, and expedite the export of crude oil and LNG. This will be challenging work in a low price environment. But it will be more important than ever to maintain U.S.  economic growth in this key sector and promote the diversification of global energy markets that is so fundamental to energy security.

Paul Scharre on the Defense Budget: The State of the Union will come shortly before the President's Budget is released to Congress, and the President should take this opportunity to reach out to Congress and show a willingness to work with them to lift the sequester and sufficiently fund the U.S. military. Military expenditures have come down significantly since their wartime peak and should not be allowed to grow unconstrained, but the sequester has been harmful and hurts military readiness and modernization. The Department of Defense needs the flexibility to allocate resources within the Department, as well as the ability to make hard choices on key defense programs. The President should also signal his desire to work with Congress on difficult issues to restrain military spending, including compensation reform and another round of base closures.

Ely Ratner on Asia Policy: President Obama’s pivot to Asia could very well serve as his most important foreign policy legacy. And yet, despite being a leading priority for the administration, Obama has given only two speeches on the region–both in the region.

This year’s State of the Union address provides a critical moment for Obama to begin making the case to the American people about why Asia matters for their security and prosperity. This is relevant not because the president needs general public support for his overall Asia strategy, but rather because the centerpiece of that strategy—the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement—will likely come before Congress this year. 

Without a more vigorous and public campaign by the White House, it is unclear whether Obama can muster the necessary support on Capitol Hill to conclude the agreement. How strongly Obama endorses the TPP in his State of the Union, if at all, will be the best indicator yet about how serious he is about maintaining U.S. power and leadership in Asia. 

Elbridge Colby on Nuclear Policy: The upcoming State of the Union offers an ideal opportunity for President Obama to underline the U.S. commitment to modernizing the nation’s nuclear arsenal. While the President began his tenure with a very public embrace of nuclear disarmament, this vision has become increasingly discordant with global reality and the needs of the country. Russia’s recent aggressiveness and ambitious upgrading of its nuclear force, China’s growing assertiveness and daunting military buildup, North Korea’s continuing development of its nuclear arsenal, and Iran’s persisting flouting of the international community all highlight how ill-suited a policy of nuclear abolition is for the United States. Indeed, in a world that is becoming more rather than less dangerous, U.S. nuclear weapons are becoming more rather than less relevant – especially as U.S. conventional military advantages are under increasingly stiff challenge.

It is therefore vital that the United States revamp its nuclear force. The U.S. nuclear deterrent of tomorrow needs to provide for the coming generation and more the same deterrent potency that its aging predecessors have until now.

Yet existing plans for modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal are under pressure from disarmament advocates, cost-cutters, and military bureaucracies more interested in conventional than nuclear forces. The President should take this opportunity to signal his Administration’s firm support for a strong program of nuclear modernization, including the full Triad of submarines, bombers, and land-based missiles, as well as the weapons associated with them to provide a survivable, assured, and discriminately usable deterrent. Such a proposal will not only make good policy sense but also offer a chance to work with the new majority in Congress. 

Nicholas Heras on Syria: President Obama should take this opportunity to present a vision for the framework of a post-Assad Syria, and not simply limit his remarks to an update on the U.S.-led Coalition campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and the ongoing effort to remove international jihadist organizations that are using Syria as a strategic base of operations against the West. He should reiterate the U.S.’ long-standing desire for a political solution to the Syrian conflict, and emphasize that this solution is built out from his decision to train and arm Syria’s secular, nationalist rebels.

The President should reassure the international community that the United States will only train Syrian rebels who agree to abide by a political program that seeks a pluralistic and democratic future for their country, and that the U.S. will hold the rebels to their pledge. President Obama should also state that the U.S. recognizes the legitimate concerns of Syria’s loyalist communities, many of which are sectarian minorities that are fearful of displacement and massacre if the Assad regime falls. 

He should remind loyalist Syrian communities that the U.S. supports a transition plan for Syria to which they can agree. The President should emphasize that important stages in this plan include local security, with the phased demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration of the country’s loyalist and rebel militias into a national security force that is under the control of a civilian government in Damascus. 

Jacob Stokes on the National Security Strategy: The national security portions of the State of the Union should preview a new National Security Strategy, the first since 2010. Both should directly address the world we live in today where each of the three major regions for U.S. foreign policy – Asia, the Middle East and Europe – are all grappling with fundamental challenges to regional order. Asia is on a tightwire trying to work with a China both growing in strength but also made vulnerable by internal challenges. The Middle East struggles to confront an epochal breakdown in order sparked by the search for freedom but now driving war and fostering radicalism. Europe faces a trifecta of economic stagnation, a political no man’s land between integration and devolution, and a military challenge from Russia on its periphery.

Creating a sustainable and successful U.S. strategy requires an approach that can balance these simultaneous challenges to order in key regions, allocating scarce resources and attention to bolster order over time. Sometimes that means responding vigorously to events, sometimes it requires subordinating current events to longer-term goals. What the United States needs now is the wisdom to decide which approach to take for any given challenge and the vision to make them add up to a coherent overall strategy. 

Katherine Kidder on Veteran’s Issues: With two years left in his administration, the President must use his State of the Union address to highlight how he will follow through on the veterans initiatives set forth throughout his administration. He should draw attention to his 2009 commitment to DOD-VA health care integration—which has yet to come to fruition to date—and provide a pathway for implementation. He has a further opportunity to call on the Department of Defense to assist in closing the civil-military divide by providing accurate and timely information about departing service members to the states and communities that veterans will call home once leaving the service. 

He must also address his 2011 commitment to improve mental health care for service members and veterans. He can use the opportunity call on Congress to pass legislation aimed at increasing VA mental health care competency, such as the Clay Hunter Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act now before the Senate. He should insist upon effective Congressional oversight of the VA under the new constructs put forth by the 2014 Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014. 

Zachary Goldman on Sanctions: In 2015, the President should devote substantial attention to working with Congress to adjust current sanctions programs--in the context of Cuba, and potentially Iran if there is an agreement over its nuclear program—so that they can continue to be used to accomplish precise political goals. This effort will build on the remarkable innovation seen in the design of targeted sanctions programs in 2014, in which those programs became ever-more-tailored to the specific political ends they intended to accomplish. The sanctions imposed in the Ukraine context, which restricted the ability of Russian banks and energy companies to obtain certain technologies and long-term financing, sought to impose costs on Russia for its activities in Eastern Europe while minimizing the consequences for Western economies. Adjusting the nature of Cuba and Iran sanctions, by contrast, will be more complicated because of their long-standing nature, complicated mix of executive and legislative programs, and, in the case of Iran, dense web of multilateral instruments. In order to keep the tools of financial warfare flexible and sharply honed, it will be necessary to show that they can be adjusted with the same degree of precision with which they were imposed.

If you would like to speak with any of CNAS' experts on these topics, please contact JaRel Clay at jclay@cnas.org, or call 202-457-9425.