James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.
Foreign policy seemed to go on hiatus during the U.S. presidential election. Economic issues dominated the race, and Americans waited to see which candidate's vision would prevail. But the world kept turning, and in President Barack Obama's second term he will face a number of legacy issues from his previous four years and several emerging strategic challenges.
The most critical is Iran. The Islamic Republic is continuing to pursue nuclear weapons capability and shows no sign of changing course. The Obama administration's sanctions-only approach may have reduced Iran's options for underwriting and supporting its nuclear program, but it has not dissuaded Tehran from continuing down the nuclear path. The operative example is North Korea, which faced similar crushing sanctions and had far fewer economic resources than energy-rich Iran. Yet today, North Korea is a nuclear power. From Tehran's point of view, if Pyongyang could do it, so can they.
The White House has yet to articulate a coherent strategy for dealing with a nuclear Iran. Talk of "containment" betrays a Cold War-era mindset that does not take into account the complexities of 21st century strategy. Iran will seek to leverage its nuclear capability in pursuit of regional hegemony. The very fact of an Iranian nuclear force will radically reduce U.S. freedom of action in the region. Countries bordering Iran—or, more to the point, within Tehran's missile range—will either have to find ways to accommodate Iranian desires or seek their own nuclear deterrents, sparking a regional nuclear arms race in the process.
In its first term, the Obama administration pledged that the United States would bring regional states under the American strategic umbrella in an attempt to build confidence and forestall destabilizing nuclear proliferation. But the administration is planning a radical nuclear build-down in its second term—one that significantly, perhaps fatally, weakens the credibility of any such promises.
Iranian nuclear capability will also heighten the risk of nuclear terrorism, since it maintains the world's largest state-sponsored terrorist network. Given the magnitude of this threat, and the ineffectiveness of previous policies, it is likely that Israel will undertake some form of pre-emptive military action against Iran's nuclear program. The Obama administration has said publicly it would not cooperate in such a strike without prior notice, but this may not dissuade Israel from acting against a perceived existential threat. The most significant planning challenge in President Obama's second term, therefore, could be dealing with the destabilizing after-effects of a probably Israeli strike.
The administration will also have to formulate policies to deal with the rise of Islamist political parties in post-"Arab Spring" states. In its first term, the administration took a laissez faire approach toward these political developments, in the process giving tacit support to radical religious parties as manifestations of popular will and human dignity. But now that Islamists are consolidating power, particularly in Egypt, the United States faces significant new challenges.
Islamist states are likely to pursue domestic policies that run counter to U.S. views of human and civil rights, particularly with respect to treatment of women and religious minorities. In foreign policy, they can be counted on to be destabilizing agents, in particular with respect to Israel. Islamist terrorist groups have also been able to exploit the breakdown in sovereign power in North Africa, leading to the emergence of safe havens under the functional control of al Qaeda and tragedies like the September 11, 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya. In his second term, Obama must end his role as a cheerleader for the Muslim popular revolt and begin to plan for the serious national security consequences of Islamist states pursuing policies at odds with U.S. interests.
Strategic nuclear forces likewise present a second term challenge. Russia and China are both modernizing their respective nuclear forces, but the White House remains committed to radical reductions in U.S. capabilities. Obama is now seeking to enshrine this build-down in a new bilateral agreement with Moscow. Yet, like in the case of Iran, the current nuclear proliferation problem is too complex for Cold War-era mechanisms to handle.
The defense budget is another critical problem. The "fiscal cliff" that the government is fast approaching will fall disproportionately on national security programs. The false narrative of a peace dividend from winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has diverted attention from the devastating impact of the nearly 10 percent defense cut required by the looming sequestration. Defense expenditures will be reduced to percentages of GDP equivalent to the skeleton force period of the 1930s, or the years leading up to the September 11, 2001 attacks. With instability on the rise and strategic challenges growing, this is not the time to revert to a bare-bones military that will only encourage America's adversaries to test Obama's resolve.