National Security Network

Principled and Pragmatic: Opportunities for the 112th Congress

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Report 3 January 2011

Terrorism & National Security Terrorism & National Security Afghanistan counter-terrorism defense spending iran


As newly elected officials arrive in Washington to be sworn-in, serious national security issues await the 112th Congress.  But perhaps unexpectedly, where a political lens sees conflict, an expert lens shows substantial agreement around principled, pragmatic policy choices.  2011 will mark a significant milestone for the war in Afghanistan, as experts coalesce around an effective, sustainable exit strategy.  While some seek to debate counterterrorism strategies, practitioners agree on a comprehensive approach that brings the fight to terrorists, hews to our Constitution and denies terrorists the propaganda victory they seek.  Congress can bring bipartisan debt-cutting zeal to a leaner, modernized defense budget.  And as senior military officials have warned, dealing with Iran will demand bipartisan subtlety and restraint, lest we cement Iran's determination to acquire the bomb and destroy the beginnings of political reform within the country. 

Focus on the way forward in Afghanistan. Congress can choose to play a vital role in facilitating a discussion about solutions and in effective oversight to ensure reforms are implemented.  Members will find a growing consensus about the key elements among experts:  political progress in Afghanistan commensurate with military progress, a re-energized effort aimed at finding regional solutions and greater attention to economic realities of the conflict, both Afghan and American. As NSN's Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton (ret.) and Heather Hurlburt have written, "this fall, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Center for American Progress, the Afghanistan Study Group and the Center for a New American Security all issued reports on Afghanistan that share a stunning amount of agreement. As a group, they offer a way forward that could be effective, affordable and sustainable." [Hurlburt and Eaton, 12/15/10]

Pursue a comprehensive counterterror strategy. The new Congress should spotlight how strong, principled counterterror policies bring the fight to terrorists, resolutely stick to our values, and deny terrorists the propaganda victories they crave:

Incapacitating extremist movements threatening the U.S.: Since taking office, the Obama administration has killed or captured hundreds of extremists, including al Qaeda and Taliban leadership. [Third Way, 7/1/10]

Prioritizing law enforcement and an alert public: A recent study from the Institute for Homeland Security Solutions urges that we "[r]ecognize the importance of law enforcement and public vigilance in thwarting terror attacks. More than 80% of foiled terrorist plots were discovered via observations from law enforcement or the general public." And as a reminder, if one were needed, treating all Americans equally and fairly is not just Constitutional law, it's also smart counter-terrorism policy.   As the Congressional Research Service notes, "In a May 2010 background paper, [Alejandro Beutel of the Muslim Public Affairs Council] documents 16 terrorist plots disrupted with Muslim-American community assistance, nine of which involved homegrown jihadist cases." [Institute for Homeland Security Solutions, 10/10. CRS, 12/7/10]

Disrupting plots at home and bringing terrorists to justice: There have been more terrorist convictions in first 18 months of the Obama administration through civilian courts than in five years of Bush administration's military tribunals. [NSN, 2/23/10]

Effective international cooperation:  Last year's Washington Nuclear Security Summit has helped get nuclear materials safely locked down around the world, most recently in Ukraine last month. Increased cooperation with Europe to track financial and bank transfers has led to 1,500 investigative leads to European allies in the past nine years. Cooperation with the Saudis foiled the Yemeni "UPS plot," and with Pakistan brought arrests in the Times Square investigation.  [NSN, 4/14/10. NY Times, 7/8/10. Washington Post, 5/14/10. CNN, 5/19/10]

Rein in defense spending.  Pentagon leaders and deficit hawks alike have argued that a leaner, modernized Pentagon is necessary for our security as well as the economic health that underlies it.  As the Stimson Center's Gordon Adams and Matthew Leatherman detailed, "Of all of this year's seismic shifts in the deficit and debt debate, putting U.S. defense budgets on the table is perhaps the most significant... Choosing mission priorities, managing efficiently and budgeting accordingly can contribute roughly $1 trillion to deficit reduction by 2020 while making the Pentagon more fiscally responsible and maintaining - even sharpening - the point of the spear.  Rarely has this task been more urgent. Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently concluded that ‘the single-biggest threat to our national security is our debt.' He is right, and now is the time to address it. U.S. national security permits us to spend less on defense, and our fiscal circumstances require it."

The ingredients for bipartisanship are all there:  from Representatives Barney Frank and Walter Jones on the Sustainable Defense Task Force, to Senator Tom Coburn and Representative Jan Schakowsky on the Deficit Reduction Commission, to the White House call for a $78 billion-dollar cut over five years, to the Tea Party. As CAP's John Norris explained, "The Tea Partiers say they are serious about balancing the budget and substantially cutting the deficit, a goal that is almost impossible to achieve without taking a hard look at the Pentagon...Mark Meckler a founding member of the Tea Party Patriots argued, ‘Everything is on the table,' adding, ‘I have yet to hear anyone say, 'We can't touch defense spending.'" [Gordon Adams and Matthew Leatherman, 12/23/10. Defense News, 12/22/10.  John Norris, Foreign Policy, 11/3/10]

Pressure and engage Iran.   As Brookings Senior Fellow Kenneth Pollack recently outlined, "The United States has achieved some truly remarkable feats in pursuit of the White House's Iran policy over the course of the past twelve months, achievements many critics from left, right and center all thought impossible... Of greatest importance, in June 2010 the administration secured the passage of a new UN Security Council resolution (number 1929) that imposed a fourth round of sanctions on Tehran for its failure to comply with its obligations to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its failure to cease its nuclear-enrichment activities. In concert with France, Britain and Germany (and some quiet help from Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE), the United States convinced both Russia and China to agree to the new resolution as well. Resolution 1929 bans arms sales to Tehran, something most thought unthinkable given the Russian and Chinese ardor to continue profiting from that market. It also included language that enabled member states to impose harsh new financial controls and limits on investment in the Iranian energy sector."  Experts agree that going forward, effective policy to deal with Iran will require patience and subtlety - not public fireworks and posturing.  As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has warned, "A military solution, as far as I'm concerned ... it will bring together a divided nation. It will make them absolutely committed to obtaining nuclear weapons. And they will just go deeper and more covert." 

As experts Daniel Brumberg and Barry Blechman wrote in Foreign Policy, "If we indulge in the seductive dream of a sudden democratic revolution -- whether delivered by bombs from above or by popular resistance from below -- we will destroy the seeds of a political change in Iran. But if we push for a process of engagement that moves Iran and the U.S. from conflict to diplomatic coexistence, we can help nurture Iran's own capacity to change and transform from within.  Let us hope that 2011 will be the year, not for war, but for a revitalized diplomatic initiative to resolve the crisis over Iran's nuclear program. If we do not pursue a bolder engagement strategy, the U.S. and its allies will ultimately have no choice but to contain a nuclear Iran. Secretary of State Clinton's recent BBC interview, in which she stated U.S. conditional acceptance of Iran's enrichment rights, provides one step in the right direction. The Obama administration must move forward, despite the obstacles at home and abroad." [Kenneth Pollack, National Interest, 11/10. Robert Gates, 11/16/10. Daniel Brumberg and Barry Blechman via Foreign Policy, 12/14/2010]

What We're Reading

The second-largest party in Pakistan's ruling coalition quit the government over fuel price increases and other complaints, leaving the country with a minority government.

South Korea's president opened the door to possible peace talks with North Korea even as he vowed not to let Pyongyang "covet even an inch of our territory" - looking to strike a delicate balance between diplomacy and strength after the North called for better ties with Seoul.

African leaders returned to Ivory Coast in their second visit in a week as they stepped up pressure on the country's renegade president to cede power or face a military ouster, more than a month after a disputed election.

Brazil's first woman President, Dilma Rousseff, has been sworn into office.

An Iranian pro-government website says President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has fired 14 advisers as part of an ongoing shake-up of his administration.

Palestinians are preparing to take their case to the U.N. Security Council in the coming days with a resolution declaring ongoing Jewish settlement in the West Bank a major obstacle to ending the conflict.

Both France and Germany want more unified economic governance for Europe, but they are in open conflict over the completely different systems they propose.

Egypt is on high alert ahead of the Coptic Christmas holiday following a New Year's Day church bombing that killed 21 people, as investigators raced to identify those behind the attack.

Over the past decade, India has seen a wave of rural suicides believed to be linked to poverty and exacerbated by climate change.

Commentary of the Day

CNAS's Christine Parthemore reviews the growing demand for rare earth elements, a little-known class of mineral supplies critical to weapons systems and energy production, and the globalized markets and booming economic growth they are bringing to some of the world's most populous developing countries.

In the Washington Monthly's State of the Union edition, NSN's Heather Hurlburt urges President Obama to continue to talk about national security and explain to the American people that military leaders worry about the raw materials for economic success just as American families do.

Zbigniew Brzezinski writes that President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao should aim for a definition of the relationship that does justice to the global promise of cooperation between them when they meet in Washington this month.

Foreign Affairs' Gideon Rachman makes predictions about which worrisome spots may erupt into crisis in 2011.