Robert Zarate is policy director at the Foreign Policy Initiative.
As President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney debated Monday for the third and final time, national security took center stage. It's a good thing, too. While the economy and jobs have understandably dominated the presidential race, whoever occupies the White House in January 2013 will be not only the president of the United States, but also the commander in chief of the U.S. Armed Forces—and the leader of the free world. He'll have to be ready to deal with a host of challenges to foreign and defense policy that, in many instances, are only getting more complicated and high-stakes with each passing day. It's worth taking a moment to step back and reflect on what two of those immediate challenges will be.
The Uncertain Future of Defense Spending
In January 2013, the next commander in chief will face major decisions about the future trajectory of military spending. To begin with, the Obama administration decided in late 2011 that the defense budget would be cut by a whopping $487 billion over the next decade, and ordered the civilian-controlled military to prepare a strategy for national defense that could accommodate those cuts.
In Feb. 2012, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned congressional lawmakers that the current budget is just barely adequate to implement America's strategy for national defense: "Anything beyond this [magnitude of cuts], we have to go back to the drawing board on the strategy." Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta conceded Dempsey's point.
However, the cuts to the military could be much deeper. Under current law, an automatic "sequester" is set to start on Jan. 2, 2013, that would indiscriminately slash another $500 billion. Secretary Panetta has repeatedly cautioned that sequestration will be "devastating" to the military, and General Dempsey has warned that sequestration will be "very high risk" to national security.
Although it's possible the current president and Congress may agree to some legislative fix to reverse sequestration after the elections, that's far from certain. Indeed, the White House and Congress may decide to leave it to the president in January 2013 to solve this problem.
Iran's March to Nuclear Weapons-Making Capability
The stakes are only getting higher as Iran—a country designated by the U.S. State Department as a sponsor of terrorism—steadily improves its capability to build a nuclear weapon on short notice. To build its first nuclear explosive device, Iran needs two things: bomb-usable nuclear material and the parts for a nuclear bomb. What's troubling is that Iran has made objective and measurable progress on both requirements over the last four years.
The Obama administration's use of diplomacy and economic pressure has regrettably failed to prevent Iran from violating its international obligations and growing its stockpile of declared nuclear material. (Iran refuses to give full transparency and cooperation to the International Atomic Energy Agency so the world's nuclear watchdog cannot certify that Iran isn't still hiding undeclared weapons-relevant nuclear activities as it did for nearly two decades.) While Iran had roughly 1,000 kg of uranium enriched to 3.5 percent purity in January 2009, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported in August 2012 that Iran now has 6,876 kg—enough uranium feedstock, if further enriched, for at least 5 nuclear weapons.
Iran also possesses 189.4 kg of high enriched uranium at 20 percent purity that it first started producing in September 2010, and that is theoretically and technically usable in a very crude nuclear explosive device—though you would need a lot of it to initiate a nuclear explosion. Militaries typically prefer to use uranium enriched to more than 90 percent purity in nuclear weapons. But because each percentage point of enrichment is easier than the last, what's troubling is that highly enriched uranium enriched to 20 percent is basically four fifths of the way to uranium of 90 percent purity.
Over the last four years, Iran has also advanced the research and development needed for the parts for a nuclear explosive device. The International Atomic Energy Agency's November 2011 report warns that Iran has a long history of conducting studies and experiments that are relevant to using conventional high explosives to start a nuclear chain reaction.
Israel—a country that Iranian leaders have vowed to wipe off the map—has warned that Iran is nearing a technical "zone of immunity" in which the Israeli's use of military force would be incapable of delaying or degrading the controversial Iranian nuclear program. It's likely that if Iran gets nuclear weapons, it may set off a destabilizing competition for nuclear arms in the already-volatile Middle East that will endanger the security of the United States and its regional partners. Whoever occupies the White House in January 2013 will have to quickly decide whether more diplomacy and economic pressure is appropriate, or whether it's time for the United States, potentially with allies, to contemplate the military option.
We're Only Scratching the Surface…
Defense spending and Iran's nuclear program are only two of the many challenges that will immediately confront the White House's occupant on January 20, 2013. Other pressing issues include countering threats posed by al Qaeda, its regional affiliates, and other international terrorists; promoting U.S. interests and values while weathering the Arab Spring's potential for sudden shocks and discontinuities; advancing a strategy to ensure post-Taliban Afghanistan is not a failed state and safe haven for terrorists; confronting the strategic threat and humanitarian nightmare caused by Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad; and re-emphasizing U.S. foreign, trade, and defense policies towards allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific, while at the same time seizing the opportunities and minimizing the risks posed by China's rise.
While it's not yet clear who's going to win the November 2012 election, at least one thing is certain: The next four years of U.S. foreign and defense policy are going to be very consequential.