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Obama’s chance to clarify national security policy

Obama’s chance to clarify national security policy

Signals from the White House indicate that President Obama’s State of the Union (SOTU) address tomorrow night will focus heavily on domestic and economic policy. Understandably so, as domestic and economic issues spurred the GOP’s massive Congressional gains, and remain the nation’s predominant concerns. The SOTU is President Obama’s best platform to regain the political initiative and point the country towards his preferred course over the next two years.

Yet the president should not neglect national security policy in the SOTU, for two reasons. First, while the American people are his primary audience, we are not his only audience. Foreign leaders — friends, foes, and fence-sitters alike — will be watching keenly for signs from Obama about strategic priorities and U.S. resolve. Second, while domestic and economic policy has thus far defined this presidency, the future by its nature will surprise, and national security could reemerge as a defining concern.

Here are three issues President Obama should address tomorrow night:

Afghanistan. The administration continues to send conflicting and conflicted signals about the Afghanistan war and the meaning of July 2011 as a "drawdown" date. As Peter Feaver has argued, the White House’s rhetorical neglect of Afghanistan threatens to erode tenuous public support. Meanwhile, key actors — ranging from our NATO allies, India, and the Afghan people and government to Pakistan and the Taliban — all remain uncertain about the United States’ commitment to success in the Afghan mission. And all will in their own ways hedge accordingly. The Congressional audience tomorrow night will be essential for supporting and continuing to fund the war effort — and needs to know it is a priority for the president. Most important, U.S. forces currently deployed in theater need to hear from their commander-in-chief that he is resolved to see their efforts through.

Iran. When the governments of Israel, the United States, and Iran all say the same thing, it is probably true. So it seems to be the case that the Stuxnet virus has degraded Iran’s uranium enrichment capability and thus delayed the clock on its nuclear weapons program.  Yet if anything these setbacks have only exacerbated Iranian intransigence at the negotiating table. And a perpetual concern with the cagey Iranian regime is the "unknown unknowns" — such as the possibility of other uranium enrichment sites, as yet undiscovered and undeclared. In short, the Iranian nuclear program remains a front-burner concern, and how it is handled will define in part the Obama administration’s foreign policy legacy. President Obama should make clear tomorrow night to the United States’ P-5 plus 1 partners, to Israel, and to the Iranian regime that he remains resolved that Iran will not develop nuclear weapons. And as February’s anniversary of the Iranian revolution approaches, he should also make clear to the Iranian people that the United States supports their desire for liberty.

Al Qaeda. This year will witness the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Remarkably, al Qaeda has not since succeeded in another large-scale attack on U.S. soil. As unfathomable as this fact would have seemed in the weeks following 9/11, it is no accident but rather stems from the vigilance of the Bush administration and subsequently the Obama administration in pursuing aggressive counterterrorism policies. Policies which, as Stephen Carter of Yale Law School argues in his most recent book, the Obama team may have denounced during their campaign but have adopted and expanded while in office. Yet Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri remain at large, al Qaeda remains viable and dangerous, and threats continue against the United States and our allies. President Obama should remind the nation that while we are safer we are not safe, and should remind al Qaeda’s leadership that our commitment to defeat it remains undiminished.