Assuming the polls, prognosticators, and pundits are worth their salt, this time next week President Obama will be facing political climate change. So if his advisers are worth their salt, they’re now telling him: “We’re going to need you to pivot, sir. We don’t want the country spending months talking about how this was your loss, how you’ve been weakened, how the goals you seek now exceed your reach.”
That raises this question: Pivot to what? The answer is simple, if not so pleasing for Obama: He needs to turn from the domestic issues about which he cares deeply to the national-security issues to which he has given less attention.
A Republican-majority House and a more equally divided Senate (that’s my best guess) are likely to limit Obama’s plans to further redistribute the diminishing wealth being created in a sluggish economy. Job-killing environmental schemes such as cap-and-trade will not pass; likewise “card check,” which would take power from union members and award it to union bosses.
By contrast, on the most pressing national-security issues, the president could assemble a bipartisan majority, achieve important victories, and strengthen his hand for the 2012 presidential election. Let me offer just a few examples.
Hobble Iran. It will go down in history as a terrible defeat for Obama if the terrorist-sponsoring theocrats in Tehran acquire nuclear weapons on his watch. The bipartisan sanctions legislation he has signed has badly bruised Iran’s economy. So far, however, he has pulled his punches — he has not enforced sanctions against the worst violators of the law.
Nor has Obama said loudly and clearly what needs to be said. He should be explaining not only why Iran’s jihadi rulers cannot be permitted to have their fingers on nuclear triggers, but also that the economic pain the U.S. and its allies are inflicting on Iran is intended to liberate the Iranian people, who are being sorely oppressed and whom we regard as friends.
Were Obama to give such a speech soon, the media would have to focus on it. The recent WikiLeaks document dump confirms what some of us have long argued: that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah were deeply involved in Iraq, killing both Americans and Iraqis. Iran also is facilitating American deaths in Afghanistan right now. Obama could declassify intelligence demonstrating that.
Finally, he should emphatically repeat what he has said in the past: If Iran’s rulers will not change course, other options are on the table. But now this does not imply only the use of military force. The Iranians, no doubt, have been spooked by the mysterious Stuxnet virus that has been eating away at the computers controlling their nuclear facilities. Obama need not reveal who is responsible (assuming he knows) to suggest there’s more where that came from.
Complete the mission in Afghanistan. That means defeating the Taliban, destroying al-Qaeda’s headquarters in Pakistan, and helping Pakistan move toward stabilization rather than radicalization. These are immense challenges, but Obama long ago decided to take them on. Failure now should not be an option. Obama has the world’s best military commanders and troops to rely on. And it is high time Obama recognizes this: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran — as well as Iraq and Fort Hood and Times Square — are all battlefields in a single global war that must be addressed with a single global strategy — one he and his advisers would do well to develop.
Win the Cyberspace Race. In the not-too-distant future it will be possible for cyber combatants to cause massive blackouts, wipe out financial systems, and bring about chaos in countless other ways (see note about Stuxnet virus above). This is the Space Race of the 21st century — except the outcome is much more consequential. Obama should make the investments necessary for the U.S. to develop a clear lead: cyber defenses that no adversary can overcome; cyber weapons that can bring an enemy to its knees.
Harden the grid. America’s electrical grid remains vulnerable both to an EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) attack — a capability that Iran, China, and perhaps others are developing — and to an EMP event that can occur naturally as a result of a once-in-a-century solar storm. The last such storm took place in 1859 — when Americans, obviously, were not dependent on electricity as we are now. A bill known as the GRID Act would have authorized the federal government to protect some 300 giant power transformers around the country. It passed the House by a unanimous voice vote in August but its key provisions were stripped out in the Senate by Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski (a Republican now running for reelection as an independent) and Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico (Democratic chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee). With White House support, it would pass.
Process peace carefully. President Obama should not encourage the increasingly fashionable idea of establishing Palestinian statehood in the absence of an agreement between Palestinians and Israelis. To do so would set loose an avalanche of unintended outcomes. Among them: an intensification of the power struggle between Hamas and Fatah. With Iran supporting Hamas, Fatah would be the loser — unless Israel or the U.S. intervened. Just try to play out those scenarios.
In sum: Most Americans don’t expect miracles from those they elect to high office. They do, however, want them to do what they can to strengthen — not weaken — the economy and keep America’s enemies from harming us. Over the past two years, Obama has seemed not excessively interested in what most Americans want, preferring instead to give them what he thinks they need. Hope for change — after Nov. 3.
– Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and Islamism.