Home inFocus Defense Modernization and Challenges Ahead (Winter 2016) Strategic Priorities for the Next President

Strategic Priorities for the Next President

Ilan Berman Winter 2016

The next American president will inherit a world on fire. Whoever ends up winning the presidential election in the Fall of 2016 will enter the Oval Office facing a range of pressing—and difficult—global problems. How he or she will address them will determine America’s place in the world for much of the decade to come. As such, it’s worth examining what the future commander-in-chief will be forced to contend with on the world stage.

An Emboldened Iran

For the Obama administration, the nuclear agreement concluded this summer by the P5+1 powers and Iran represents a key political victory. But the passage of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) does not signal an end to the Iranian challenge confronting the United States. Rather, it marks the start of a new—and even more challenging—phase in U.S. Mideast policy, for at least two reasons.

First, contrary to the Obama administration’s pledges at the outset of negotiations in November of 2013, the agreement ultimately concluded with Iran is not a lasting solution to the latter’s nuclear ambitions. Rather, the agreement’s provisions provide Iran with a slower, but more predictable, path to the “bomb.” During that period, key provisions of the deal will allow the Iranian regime to strengthen its nuclear processes—leaving it significantly closer to nuclear breakout when the agreement expires a decade from now.

Iran’s neighbors understand this state of affairs very well, which is why many have begun arming in response. Saudi Arabia, for example, has resumed movement toward a nuclear capability of its own, leveraging the financial assistance it previously provided to Pakistan as a means to secure a potential “off the shelf” nuclear option. Other countries can be expected to follow suit, leading inexorably to a “multi-nuclear Middle East” in which multiple states seek to acquire an offensive nuclear capability as a strategic counterweight to Iran’s eventual nuclearization. Reassuring these nations, and dampening their drive toward nuclear status, will require far greater American investments in defense technologies (including missile defenses) that can help blunt Iran’s nuclear potential.

Second, the agreement provides Iran with an unprecedented economic windfall. Over the coming year, pursuant to the provisions of the JCPOA, Iran will receive $100 billion or more in previously escrowed oil revenue. The scale of this economic assistance is staggering; it represents a quarter or more of Iran’s total annual GDP, and matches or exceeds the entirety of the so-called “Marshall Plan” launched by the Truman administration in 1948 to rebuild a war-ravaged Europe in the aftermath of World War II. Moreover, these funds will be augmented by Iran’s expanded post-sanctions trade with European and Asian nations, many of whom are now rebuilding their economic ties to the Islamic Republic.

That economic stimulus, in turn, can be expected to empower a range of destructive Iranian behavior in the years ahead, from an intensification of the regime’s support for terrorism to an expansion of its military capabilities. Indeed, this is already occurring; in recent months, the Islamic Republic has concluded a series of agreements for military equipment with China and Russia, and accelerated its support for proxy forces in Yemen, Bahrain, and the Palestinian Territories, among other locales. Mitigating Iran’s growing capabilities and curtailing its adventurism means that the United States will need to step up its defense and intelligence coordination with regional allies, as well as making far greater investments in the security of those states.

The State of the Islamic State

On November 13th, in an interview with the ABC news channel, President Obama waxed optimistic about the state of U.S. counterterrorism strategy, arguing that his administration had successfully “contained” the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). Just hours later, the President’s assessment was proven spectacularly wrong when ISIS-inspired militants went on a bloody rampage in Paris that left 130 dead and nearly 400 injured.

The Paris attacks were a savage reminder of the bankruptcy of U.S. counterterrorism strategy to date. Since the Fall of 2014, the White House has launched nine distinct “lines of effort” aimed at containing and curtailing ISIS. These include efforts to, inter alia, target the group’s various sources of funding, provide support for regional Middle Eastern states, and challenge the group’s ideological narrative. Yet, with the notable exception of American and allied efforts to curb the ISIS oil trade (the so-called “line five” effort), Washington has done precious little of substance to date to address the menace posed by today’s premier terrorist threat.

Leery of committing to a new war front, the Obama White House has provided only nominal military support to the Iraqi government, or to vulnerable Gulf States in Iraq and Syria’s neighborhood now grappling with their own incidents of Islamist unrest. Despite its pledge to “counter the Islamic State’s true nature,” Washington remains both outmanned and outgunned in the “war of ideas” that is now being waged by ISIS with tremendous effect on various social media platforms. In part as a result, it has failed to staunch the flow of foreign fighters that have joined the rank of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq over the past year-and-a-half—a figure that, according to experts, now measures more than half of the total number of jihadists that joined the holy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. And on the crucial issue of alleviating the humanitarian suffering that has become a major by-product of the Syrian civil war, America has done practically nothing at all (a state of affairs that has contributed to the deepening migrant crisis now engulfing Europe).

Much more can and must be done on the counterterrorism front if the United States hopes to reverse the current, detrimental direction of worldwide Islamist activity. Simply put, the United States and its allies need to engage far more seriously than they have to date in the counterterrorism fight. That, in turn, will require Washington to re-commit itself to a “long war” against the Islamic State and its ideological fellow travelers, with all that this entails on the political, economic, military, and intellectual levels.

Russia Run Amok

These days, Moscow gives every indication of being on the march. Russia’s recent intervention in Syria in support of its longtime ally, Bashar al-Asad, has fundamentally reconfigured the contours of the nearly five-year-old Syrian civil war. The Kremlin’s motivations are clear: to preserve the Asad regime’s hold on power, as well as to eliminate assorted Islamist threats that could eventually pose a danger to the Russian Federation. Moscow, however, also hopes that its intervention in Syria also has an ancillary benefit: that of rehabilitating it in the eyes of the West, and a freer hand in the “post-Soviet space.”

There, Russia’s nearly two-year-old campaign of aggression against Ukraine has slowed noticeably in recent months, as Ukrainian forces have pushed back decisively against Russian-organized and supported rebels in the country’s east. Despite these setbacks, however, the Kremlin continues to covet both Ukraine and other parts of the former USSR—territories that, in the eyes of President Vladimir Putin and his followers, were stripped from Moscow by an accident of history, and should be restored to their rightful place as Russian holdings when possible. This desire encompasses Eastern Europe and the Baltics, and—if unchecked—represents a fundamental challenge to the post-World War II status quo in Europe.

Over the past year, NATO has begun to mobilize to counter Russian encroachment. Alliance plans call for a number of new bases on the bloc’s eastern periphery, and member nations have stepped up their involvement in military maneuvers and the deployment of equipment designed to reassure countries on Russia’s periphery. But the sustainability of these steps is an open question, because NATO remains chronically underfunded and under-resourced; as of this writing, just four of the bloc’s 28 member nations meet its desired target of spending two percent of their GDP on defense. Those resources, moreover, are likely to be stretched even further in the near future, as the Alliance adds Montenegro as a full-fledged member.

The United States has been largely absent in this conversation. While the U.S. Congress has pledged its support for the provision of military aid to Ukraine, the White House—reluctant to ruffle Russian feathers—has so far failed to provide Kyiv with the equipment it needs to continue to effectively deter Russia. Neither has the Obama administration chosen to substantially bolster its forces in the Baltics or other regions vulnerable to Russian aggression.

This state of affairs cannot persist. In keeping with the old Russian saying, “the appetite comes with the eating,” a failure to challenge Moscow’s ambitions in the “post-Soviet space” will inexorably lead to still greater Russian adventurism, both in Ukraine and beyond. America thus needs to move beyond the failed “reset” policy that has characterized the Obama years toward a more sober approach which sees Russia for what it truly is: a persistent strategic competitor whose vision for the international system is diametrically opposed to American interests.

Syrian Spillover

The civil war in Syria is now nearly five years old. Over the past half-decade, the conflict has become the most acute humanitarian disaster in modern times. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than a quarter-million people have been killed in the fighting to date, nearly half of them civilians. At least 7.6 million others have been internally displaced, while the number of Syrian refugees that have fled the country now approaches 4 million.

The effects of this mass displacement are now being felt in Europe, which is grappling with the largest population migration to take place since World War II. In 2015, an estimated 700,000 refugees from Syria (as well as from North Africa) flooded into the Eurozone. By the end of next year, that number is expected to swell by another 3 million, straining European economies, social safety nets, and local levels of political tolerance in the process.

But Syria is more than simply a humanitarian catastrophe. Since March 2011, it has also become the locus of the new global jihad in much the same way that the Soviet invasion of 1979 made Afghanistan a focal point for Islamists from the world over. And, like Afghanistan in its day, the training these forces are now receiving will translate into religiously motivated violence elsewhere in the years ahead, as the fast-burning fires of the Syrian jihad dim and these fighters return home. (Indeed, to a large extent, Russia’s involvement in Syria today is a reflection of fears that Russia’s sizeable jihadi contingent could soon return.)

The twin challenges of the Syrian civil war—mass migration and a new wave of global jihadism—will by necessity impact American security, irrespective of the strategy that Washington ultimately decides to adopt toward Syria. It will also alter the way that the United States interacts with its allies, old and new, as those nations struggle to strike a balance between humanitarian concerns and security.

Rethinking China

Is China a political partner or a strategic competitor? That question is now being hotly debated within the Washington Beltway. The past several years have seen China adopt an increasingly assertive, expansionist line toward its geopolitical neighborhood. This policy has included growing territorial claims in the East and South China Seas, as well as controversial “land reclamation” activities in the latter.

China’s increasingly belligerent international behavior has led more and more experts and policymakers to question the logic of “engagement”—the historical policy under which Western policymakers sought to shape Chinese behavior in a constructive direction by deepening its involvement in the global system. Yet coherent responses to what was once hoped would be a “peaceful” rise on the part of China have lagged far behind. While more and more experts in Washington now speak of the need to “balance” Beijing, the U.S. government remains unsure how best to do so. Thus the Obama administration’s vaunted Asia “pivot,” announced with great fanfare in February of 2011, remains largely conceptual in nature, having generated few tangible alterations to U.S. policy in the Asia-Pacific. Other White House responses have been similarly muddled; most recently, an October 2015 “freedom of navigation” operation undertaken by the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea had the unintentional effect of actually strengthening Chinese territorial claims there.

Without coherent American leadership, regional states have struggled to craft their own responses. Some, like the Philippines, have sought legal recourse from international bodies. Others, such as Japan and Australia, have looked to deepen their regional alliances as a way of expanding their deterrent potential. Yet, without the stabilizing presence and influence of the United States, these initiatives remain fragmentary, and no clear counterweight has emerged to Beijing’s increasingly bellicose regional policies. Deepening engagement in Asia, therefore, has become an overriding American priority, both as a means of reassuring regional states and as a way of preventing China from indelibly redrawing the region’s geopolitical order in its favor.

Funding the Mandate

Undergirding these strategic problems is a structural one: the current underfunded state of American defense. Robust responses to contemporary problems—from defending regional allies in the face of a rising Iran to bolstering European security in order to deter Russian aggression—will require the United States to undertake greater investments in global security in the years ahead. Yet America is currently in no position to do so. The U.S. defense budget is now at its lowest ebb since before the Second World War, while caps on future defense spending—a product of the so-called Congressional “sequester”—curtail prospects for supplemental, and vital, defense spending, at least for the moment.

Such a state of affairs is deeply detrimental to the realization of American foreign policy objectives. With some notable exceptions (Sen. Rand Paul on the right, Sen. Bernie Sanders on the left), the consensus in both political parties now tilts heavily toward a more active, interventionist approach to foreign policy and national defense. Yet, unless serious attention is paid to America’s declining ability to project power abroad, and to the continued strength and vitality of its military, the country will find itself increasingly unable to meet the challenges of today’s global system—let alone those of tomorrow.

Ilan Berman is Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council. His most recent book is Iran’s Deadly Ambition: The Islamic Republic’s Quest for Global Power.