- By John HannahJohn Hannah is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focusing on U.S. strategy. During the presidency of George W. Bush, he served for eight years on the staff of Vice President Cheney, including as the vice president's national security advisor.
A hard-fought election behind us, hope springs eternal that President Obama and congressional Republicans will come together and find a way to address the most acute challenges confronting the nation. At home, the Constitution makes that kind of cooperation more or less essential if we’re to resolve our most serious problems. Abroad, of course, presidents enjoy much greater leeway to act unilaterally. That said, it remains the case that — all other things being equal — the more bipartisan America’s approach to key national security issues, the more credible, sustainable, and, ultimately, successful those policies are likely to be.
Admittedly, bipartisanship was hardly a hallmark of President Obama’s first-term foreign policy. Republicans found ample cause for complaint. Early on, the president went out of his way — especially, it seemed, in high-profile speeches on foreign soil — to denigrate his predecessor’s efforts to prosecute the war on terror. An inflated sense of his own ability to single-handedly transform world politics led to serial missteps indulging hostile regimes in Tehran and Damascus, while gratuitously alienating key allies like Israel. CIA officers responsible for interrogating terrorists were needlessly re-targeted for investigation. Congress was all but ignored in the controversial decision to attack Libya. Highly sensitive national security information was systematically leaked in a transparent effort to burnish the president’s warrior credentials in an election year.
Yet amidst the overall discord, important areas of agreement still proved possible. When the president took difficult decisions with which Republicans concurred — the surge in Afghanistan, expanding drone strikes, the Bin Laden raid — they overwhelmingly backed him. And when harsh Middle Eastern realities eventually laid waste to his naive outreach with Iran, and the president belatedly turned to a strategy of escalating sanctions, congressional Republicans enthusiastically joined Democratic colleagues in providing unqualified support — indeed, even imposing measures beyond what the administration initially sought, whose end result has been a dramatic strengthening of the U.S. position.
Is there an expanded basis for bipartisanship in the second term? Just maybe. After four years in office, the Bush-bashing has lost its utility. The fantasy that the president could transform the world through sheer force of personality lies in tatters. Iran won’t be charmed out of its nuclear ambitions. Syria’s tyrant isn’t a reformer, he’s a mass murderer. Strong-arming Israel doesn’t win friends and bring peace.
In short, many of the president’s most fanciful initiatives have come a cropper. Several have been quietly abandoned. There’s at least a prospect, then, that safely re-elected, facing an increasingly treacherous set of international challenges, President Obama may be ready to turn the page and pursue a more hard-nosed, bipartisan approach to secure America’s vital interests. With the whip hand in foreign policy, the president of course has the primary responsibility to reach across the aisle to try and forge such a consensus and partnership. But if he does, Republicans should be prepared to reciprocate.
There’s a growing danger, however, that the opportunity presented by the fresh start of a new term could be de-railed even before inauguration day. The president badly needs to end the stone-walling and come clean as soon as possible on the Benghazi fiasco. The longer this drags on, and the more the administration appears to bob and weave to avoid accountability, the more corrosive and long-lasting the effects on the president’s credibility and the overall political environment in Washington.
And for goodness sake, Mr. President, don’t exponentially compound the problem by putting forward the one person who, fairly or not, has become the face of this disaster to be your next Secretary of State. Talk about a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. It’s an open-invitation to a bitter, partisan nomination battle that would unnecessarily poison the chances for greater cooperation on national security issues.
Assuming the Benghazi tragedy doesn’t turn into a full-blown scandal and political tsunami, where should the focus be for building foreign policy bipartisanship? Everyone will have their own list, but I’d highlight four priority areas where I think it’s most urgently needed and could do considerable good.
Averting the fiscal cliff and shoring up America’s long-term economic and military power. It’s by now a truism, but failing to deal with the systemic problems that now threaten the nation’s basic economic health could spell doom for U.S. global leadership and power — and with it the liberal international order that has underwritten American peace and prosperity for decades. This is foundational. Begin to right the ship at home and all our other challenges can be managed. Fail to do so and we’re screwed. On this one, ending the political dysfunction that is sapping our national strength, confidence, will and credibility is impossible without bipartisan compromise and partnership. If the President and the Republican leadership get one thing right, this has to be it.
Iran strategy. All signs are that the showdown over Iran’s nuclear program will likely come to a head in 2013. President Obama has been clear that his policy is prevention, not containment. In the third debate with Mitt Romney, he further specified that Iran’s program must be stopped before it achieves "breakout capacity." While indicating that he’s fully prepared to use force to achieve that objective, the president believes that he first needs to show that every chance for resolving the crisis diplomatically has been exhausted — including via direct bilateral negotiations. That is where we are now headed and it would be good indeed if the president and Congress could present a united front to Tehran and the world.
In theory, there should be ample common ground: the imperative of achieving a verifiable end to Iran’s nuclear weapons program; the importance of maintaining (and increasing) crippling sanctions until a deal is secured through actions, not just words; not allowing the Iranians to use negotiations as a stalling tactic; working in lock-step with our Israeli ally; and avoiding a costly war if at all possible, while being fully prepared to employ force decisively should our good-faith efforts to reach a negotiated solution fail. Whether the denouement with Iran comes via jaw-jaw or war-war, President Obama should want Republicans fully on board for what is likely to be the defining national security issue of his presidency.
Syria. Thanks in no small measure to the administration’s refusal to lead for 20 months, the situation is now truly disastrous. Forty thousand dead. Hundreds of thousands of refugees. A failing state whose violent implosion threatens to spread conflict, instability and extremism across a vital region of the world, endangering the security and wellbeing of several key U.S. allies. Options for protecting and advancing U.S. interests have grown narrower and narrower, while the risks and dangers of intervention have escalated dramatically. Getting more involved looks highly undesirable, it’s true; but doing nothing and allowing the strategic situation to deteriorate further — as it surely will — to the advantage of Al Qaeda, Iran or both, looks even worse.
What’s needed is a strategy that, while setting clear limits on any direct U.S. military role, brings America’s diplomatic, security, and intelligence assets to bear, along with those of our allies, in a far more decisive manner with the aim of: defeating the Assad regime, building leverage with secular-minded rebel groups, marginalizing the jihadis, supporting an internationally-backed political transition, and inflicting a painful defeat on Iran and its ally, Hezbollah. The critical role U.S. diplomats played last week in brokering the emergence of a new opposition coalition (and the sidelining of the ineffective, Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Syrian National Council) was an important first step, proof of the significant influence that America can still wield when it puts its mind to it. But it quickly needs to be coupled to a broader strategy that links up with the political and military situation on the ground where Syria’s future will be determined.
Should the administration decide that U.S. interests necessitate playing a more assertive role, President Obama should actively reach out to key members of Congress. Admittedly, neither the American people nor their elected representatives in Washington have shown any desire whatsoever to become more involved in the Syrian quagmire. But it’s also true that the administration has done nothing to explain why they should care, what’s at stake for the United States, and how we can still act to protect our interests without putting our own troops in harm’s way. No doubt, there are influential Republicans in both the House and Senate who recognize the dangers posed by simply standing by as the Syrian catastrophe descends into full-blown chaos, and would be open to a discussion of what additional steps the United States might prudently take to protect and preserve our strategic interests.
Energy. Unlike most national security issues, this one promises huge upside opportunity. This week the International Energy Agency reported that thanks to the revolution in energy-recovery technology (hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling), the United States is poised by 2020 to pass Saudi Arabia as the world’s leading oil producer. By 2035 we could achieve net energy self-sufficiency, producing as much as we consume. Imports from the Middle East, Venezuela or any other unstable, despotic part of the world could be zeroed out. The economic benefits are potentially staggering in terms of investment, jobs, overall growth, and the balance of payments. Of course, since oil is traded on a global market, we’d still be highly vulnerable to price shocks triggered by war, revolution, and instability in the Middle East — unless, that is, we also got serious about moving our transportation sector (responsible for 70 percent of U.S. oil consumption) off of gasoline and onto alternative fuel sources, such as natural gas and electricity. Developing a comprehensive energy strategy that fully exploits the economic windfall of America’s oil and gas boom while enhancing national security, investing in new technologies, and protecting the environment should be a tailor-made proposition for bipartisan cooperation and compromise. It’s a win-win opportunity, more than capable of sensibly addressing many of the legitimate priorities of Republicans and Democrats alike, while making a major contribution to the nation’s long-term wellbeing and strength.
On the eve of a second Obama administration, the country faces immense problems at home and abroad. With the president’s re-election, a window has opened to forge a new, more productive partnership with congressional Republicans, one that can significantly strengthen his hand to deal with the most difficult challenges ahead. He should seize the opportunity that now exists. If he does, Republicans should be ready and willing to respond in kind.