As President, McCain or Obama Will Face Significant National Security Threats

Both candidates would face perilous threats on Day 1.

The next president will face challenges in dealing with Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, al Qaeda, and anti-American sentiment around the world.

The next president will face challenges in dealing with Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, al Qaeda, and anti-American sentiment around the world.

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The demands on the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan will also affect the next president's ability to contain Iran, which the Bush administration sees as determined to develop nuclear weapons. U.S. intelligence agencies believe that Iran could be capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon by between 2010 and 2015—which could fall during the next president's term. But Bush's tough talk toward Tehran has many concerned that the showdown could escalate into a more violent conflict before Inauguration Day. "We're on a slippery slope toward some kind of confrontation," says Shibley Telhami, a Middle East scholar at the University of Maryland. "Both Republicans and Democrats have said we can't allow Iran to have nuclear weapons, which suggests that both are intent on preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons even if military force has to be used."

The biggest wild card heading into the fall is the possibility of another terrorist attack. Historically, al Qaeda has tried to time its attacks for maximum political impact (such as the 2004 Madrid bombings days before a key election), and spy agencies warn that al Qaeda remains dangerous. "The group has retained or regenerated key elements of its capability, including its top leadership, operational lieutenants, and a de facto safe haven in Pakistan's border area with Afghanistan known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, to train and deploy operatives for attacks in the West," Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Donald Kerr warned in a recent speech.

Terrorism could be a minefield during the campaign. McCain and Obama both talk tough. But the Bush administration has been quite aggressive in going after terrorists, leaving little room for candidates to suggest stronger tactics. At the same time, Osama bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, remain conspicuously at large. "For Republicans, playing up terrorism too much is risky because al Qaeda is stronger than it was in 2002 or 2003," says Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. "Democrats will stay away because the Republican response is that there hasn't been an attack in six or seven years."

Instead, the debate is more likely to focus on a trouble spot like Pakistan, which has been accused of not policing its tribal areas aggressively enough. Early on, Obama called for a shift away from Bush's vocal support for beleaguered President Pervez Musharraf. Obama's campaign says the election victory by opposition parties this year vindicates his position, but the McCain team has been critical of the new government's recent willingness to strike deals with tribal leaders and militants.

Unilateral strike. To highlight Obama's relative lack of experience, McCain pounced on a declaration by Obama that he would mount a unilateral strike inside Pakistan if he had intelligence on a key terrorist target, with or without Pakistan's permission. "The point is not whether that's a sound policy," says Randy Scheunemann, McCain's senior foreign policy adviser. "The question is whether it's a smart policy to announce publicly because it leads to a negative reaction in Pakistan." Obama aides retort that he was simply describing his policy. "Telling the American people how you would approach the crucial challenge of counterterrorism rather than the Bush approach of secrecy and deception is in itself an important difference," says Susan Rice, a top Obama foreign policy adviser.

The next president will also confront an ossified Washington bureaucracy struggling to adapt to the new threats and a sprawling, 100,000-strong intelligence community that the director of national intelligence, a three-year-old position, is still struggling to control. The candidates have offered a sampling of ideas. Obama has called for a fixed term for the DNI as long as 10 years, like that of the FBI director, to make the position of the president's chief intelligence adviser less political. McCain has suggested an organization like the World War ii-era Office of Strategic Services that could do covert action and conduct more-aggressive espionage overseas. But nobody has called for another full-scale reorganization like the one that led to the creation of the DNI.