Heather Hurlburt is the executive director of the National Security Network in Washington, D.C. Heather previously served in the Clinton administration as speechwriter to the president, and as speechwriter and policy planning staff for Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher. Follow her on Twitter at @NatSecHeather.
Nope, I'm not predicting who wins the electoral college. Nor am I hawking that "no difference on national security" line beloved of some prominent journalists recently. The two candidates should get credit for having major differences of worldview: on the value of international cooperation; on the relative utility of military and nonmilitary policies; on what style of U.S. leadership is most effective in a globalized 21st century; on how large a military the U.S. needs and can afford; and on the acceptability of torture.
But even in this ugly campaign, public opinion is well-set on some key national security issues, and facts are facts; which, together, have led to convergence of the candidates' positions on three issues which have been contentious in the past.
The United States is on its way out of Afghanistan. Both the GOP and Democratic establishments are split on this; each has a significant faction which, for a variety of strategic and humanitarian reasons, wants to keep significant numbers of troops in a combat role in Afghanistan after 2014. But the public is unified across party lines, and after attacks in the primaries, and a number of flip-flops, Romney has brought his position around to Obama's—that all combat troops should be gone, and security handed to Afghans, in 2014.
A negotiated settlement is the preferred option for dealing with Iran's nuclear program. While the GOP primary season featured candidates trying to out-hawk each other on Iran, the general election has been another story. As Israel's security establishment has had a fierce public debate, with prominent security and intelligence officials opposing an early air attack and suggesting that the use of force might ultimately be counter-productive, public statements by U.S. and Israeli officials and candidates have converged around several points: An Iranian nuclear weapon is unacceptable; time remains for negotiations; Iran is being hurt by international sanctions and looking for a way forward. One can expect continued skirmishing over whether the incumbent, whoever it is, has the right tactics—but in fact we haven't had any new tactics suggested. So after nine months of high anxiety over an "imminent" attack, it's time to go back to the business of diplomacy—ideally, quiet diplomacy, but that may be too much to hope for.
It matters to the United States that the Arab Awakenings succeed, and it matters what Arab publics think of the United States. In the third presidential debate, Mitt Romney contributed a line about radicalism in the Middle East which had stunned liberals, not to mention weary military families, cheering all across America: "We can't kill our way out of this mess." Romney also offered strong endorsements of the struggle for democracy, freedom, and the rule of law across the Middle East—sounding as if he had borrowed the author of President Barack Obama's 2009 Cairo speech. He hadn't, of course. But he gave a stronger rhetorical case for why the United States needs to invest in Arab societies and Arab democracies—even the ones we aren't comfortable with—than Obama has felt able to do since his one Arab Spring speech in 2011. Will this make any difference to the legislators of both parties who are tempted to cut aid to Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere? Will it make it any easier to come up with an effective path to end the killing in Syria and help that society move away from sectarian violence and toward democracy? Probably not. But it should take away one excuse.
That's the glass-half-full way I'm looking at this election's outcome. One last point, regardless of who wins the presidency and who holds the Senate and the House: Every pundit and planner repeated ad nauseum that this wouldn't be a national security election. In the sense they mean that there has never been a national security election—even Jimmy Carter's loss post-Iran fiasco in 1980, even John F.Kennedy's "missile gap" in 1960. But this election will have been notable for the times and places national security popped up after the "experts" declared it absent—and that ought to be a central lesson of what it means to run for president of the world's largest economy and most visible culture, and commander-in-chief of the world's strongest military. Don't kid yourself otherwise.