Obama’s Poor Choices Could Threaten Our National Security

High-risk decisions remain for the president.

By + More

Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, a California Republican, is a ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.

The paramount duty of the president is to keep Americans safe. As President Obama continues his first year in office, surely he understands this awesome responsibility. The question facing Obama—one that will be highlighted in the coming weeks—is whether he will make the right policy choices across an array of thorny national security issues. These choices are always tough and inevitably come with trade-offs. Congress, national politics, and the electorate play a role, but the decision sits squarely in the Oval Office. At the end of the day, it is the president who manages the risks facing this nation. How a president manages risk determines whether the country will be kept safe.

There are four high-risk decisions facing President Obama where the wrong policy choice will threaten our collective security. Afghanistan, Iraq, the detainees in Guantánamo Bay, and investing in capabilities to hedge against future threats will all require presidential leadership.

President Obama criticized the Bush administration for neglecting the real threat in Afghanistan. He argued that the war of necessity—the "legitimate" war—was against al Qaeda and the Taliban. Candidate Obama admonished that "you don't muddle through the central front on terror, and you don't muddle going after bin Laden. You don't muddle through stamping out the Taliban." The question is whether President Obama will heed his own words. Polls suggesting waning support for the war, combined with political pressure to collect a "peace dividend," are driving some inside and outside the administration to seek an early exit from Afghanistan. Instead of adopting the resource- and time-intensive counterinsurgency strategy our commanders recommend, they favor a minimalist approach that relies on an offshore counterterrorism strategy to defeat al Qaeda and leaves it to the emerging Afghan government and its security forces to defeat the Taliban.

Such an approach may seem tantalizing to a president seeking to avoid overseas entanglement in order to keep the focus on his domestic agenda, such as healthcare reform. Unfortunately, the short-term benefit of underresourcing the strategy in Afghanistan or, worse, redeploying our forces prematurely will only lead to a more vulnerable homeland. The last time we pursued a minimally resourced counterterrorism strategy against al Qaeda, Afghanistan remained a terrorist safe haven; the 9/11 attacks were the result. A return to this approach will likely place American lives at risk. Eight years after the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center and after eight years of fighting in Afghanistan, the president must finally give that country the resources needed to decisively defeat al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Adequately resourcing Afghanistan should not come at the expense of sustaining our successes in Iraq. Although candidate Obama promised that he would end the war in Iraq, the war—in effect—was winding down when he assumed office. Gen. David Petraeus's surge and successful application of counterinsurgency doctrine dealt Al Qaeda in Iraq a decisive blow and allowed Iraqis to surmount the ethnic violence that ripped through the country for most of 2006 and 2007. Thus, President Obama's challenge is different than that of his predecessor—winning the peace, thereby ensuring that we do not squander our hard-fought gains.

In an effort to stay true to his campaign promise, President Obama committed to redeploying our combat forces from Iraq by August 2010. This plan assumes that the Iraqi government and its security forces will step up as U.S. forces step back and that national and local Iraqi politics will not trigger sectarian violence. If Iraq has taught us anything, it's that planning assumptions ought not be too optimistic. The August 2010 timeline, therefore, may need to be revisited in the face of increased violence or political upheaval.