Look at the thousands of political ads being run this fall. Scarcely more than a handful mention the volatile world beyond our borders - unless it’s a reference to foreign competition for jobs. Even though the top priority for the president and Congress next year will be to revive America’s stagnating economy, we cannot afford to ignore the national security challenges that cloud our future.
The new Congress must be prepared to strengthen the president’s resolve in the ongoing war in Afghanistan. While the war has become increasingly unpopular domestically, it is strategically vital that we root out al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents and stabilize Afghanistan. The president’s arbitrary July 2011 deadline for withdrawal may need to be relaxed to advance our interests, but the president will need both political courage and congressional support to do so. The new Congress should not deny the president that support or act opportunistically by treating our national commitment as “Obama’s War.”
The president and Congress also must address the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, especially our continued presence in Iraq and the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions. President Obama faces intense pressure on his left to flinch from these challenges, but our national interest demands sustained engagement. With Iraq, that means congressional support for our military as it backs the shift to Iraqi governance. With Iran, that means supporting a comprehensive strategy that includes propagating fissures in the fractured Iranian regime through tough sanctions, promoting Iranian human rights, slowing the progress of its nuclear program and strengthening other Gulf states that are a counterweight to Iranian hegemony.
Central to these Middle East challenges is the duty to protect our relationship with Israel. In numerous substantive and symbolic ways, this administration has given our most important ally in a very dangerous neighborhood of the world reason to question our reliability and support in the face of existential threats. Congress must ensure that America’s moral and practical support for Israel remains strong.
Congress also can no longer ignore Mexico’s intensifying struggle against drug cartels in the border region. Instability on our 2,000-mile southern border threatens to spill over to American communities from Texas to California. Congress must redouble its efforts to secure the border and develop a strategy to help stabilize the northern region of Mexico. Our experience in helping Colombia successfully fight the drug cartels 20 years ago provides lessons in that regard.
An opportunity for progress exists in another area: a constructive approach to handling enemy combatants detained at Guantanamo Bay. The president is in a bind of his own making. He made a campaign promise to close Guantanamo without a plan for the detainees whom he cannot release. The ill-conceived proposal to bring the Sept. 11 mastermind, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, to New York for trial was fortunately short-lived.
There is an obvious path forward. Eligible detainees should be tried in military commissions that Congress redesigns to satisfy both Mr. Obama and the Supreme Court. Resolving Guantanamo is an important first step for the administration to demonstrate that it is willing to adjust its political stances and pursue bipartisan solutions on national security issues.
Finally, Congress must focus on rebuilding an efficient, effective national security enterprise for the 21st century. Our fiscal challenges will tempt the administration and some in Congress to declare a “peace dividend” and begin cutting vital defense programs. To be sure, the Defense Department should not be immune from the kind of hard scrubbing that every federal department needs. But national defense has not been the primary cause of our spiraling debt and deficits, and cutting defense should not be the solution.
Congress must stand firm against those who would disarm America in the face of nuclear threats, especially in Iran and North Korea. We must maintain a nuclear deterrent that is safe, secure and reliable and continue to develop our missile defense capabilities. Congress also will have to update laws to cope with emerging cyberthreats in a way that enables us to protect critical infrastructure while also protecting civil liberties.
This agenda is not comprehensive. Congress must play close attention to the ongoing threats posed by al Qaeda cells, ensure robust responses to terrorist funding networks, expand free trade and attend to proposed treaties. These challenges won’t wait for our economy to recover.
While this election is primarily about the economy, its most weighty impact may be how the new Congress steps up to protect our nation.
Heather Wilson is a board member of Crossroads GPS and was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from New Mexico from 1999 to 2009; she served on the Armed Services and Intelligence committees.