US & Canada

Obama national security team's inbox of problems

Chuck Hagel (left), John Kerry (centre) and John Brennan (right)
Image caption Chuck Hagel (left, John Kerry (centre) and John Brennan must be confirmed by the Senate

A key priority when the US Senate reconvenes next week following President Barack Obama's inauguration, is to confirm his second-term national security cabinet.

While his choices for secretary of state, defence secretary and CIA director will have separate hearings, it would actually be more instructive to put them all in one room since, in today's world, national security is the ultimate team sport.

This team's success will require effective action by multiple agencies, applying all instruments of national power in ways that are complementary and not contradictory.

It also involves collaborating with other countries, achieving consensus when possible about the root causes of emerging crises, and taking decisive action that is broadly viewed as legal and legitimate.

No easy task, particularly given the continuing economic uncertainty and vastly different political perceptions at home and abroad about security challenges, the stakes and proper course of action.

They will spend a lot of time together in the White House situation room, where the national security policy process is actually driven.

It would make sense to have them sit together before Congress and outline an integrated approach to second-term security priorities, including Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and perhaps Mali.

Even with separate hearings, President Obama's new team must be forthcoming and candid about the difficulties ahead and mid-course adjustments that are required.

They should also try to refocus the existing national security debate away from political contrivances and back to the real world.

Iran

Former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, nominee for defence secretary, has displayed healthy scepticism on Iran policy.

History and politics suggest the current approach - the best among unattractive options - will be difficult and take time.

Sanctions are crippling Iran's economy, but may not affect the theocracy's strategic thinking.

While top White House counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan's task, once confirmed as CIA director, would be to improve our understanding of Iran's true intentions and nuclear progress, it would be up to Massachusetts Senator John Kerry as secretary of state to see if sufficient ground can be gained diplomatically to forestall military action.

What they can do together next week is keep time on the negotiating clock, since a meaningful conversation may not happen until after Iran's elections in June.

Afghanistan

Mr Hagel's primary task would be to manage the end of the war.

His first major recommendation to the president would focus on the shape, size and scope of a follow-on mission.

Mr Kerry's state department would oversee Afghanistan's political, social and economic development for which diplomats, in light of an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya in September, will need security.

How will that be achieved? The manner in which Mr Brennan chooses to continue the drone campaign in the tribal areas will impact - positively or negatively - the reconciliation process between Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Taliban.

The key question is whether the three men can mould the existing three separate approaches into a revised and cohesive strategy.

Mr Brennan should also explain how drone operations should evolve after 2014 and under what legal authorities.

Mali

Since the 9/11 attacks, a cornerstone of US counter-terrorism strategy has been to deny extremists any safe haven.

The Obama administration has relentlessly attacked core al-Qaeda members in Pakistan and a key affiliate in Yemen, while taking a regional approach in Somalia (which appears to be succeeding) and Mali (which, at least at present, has not).

A military coup last March was a setback for a decade-long effort to strengthen Mali's ability to secure its own territory.

The recent rebel advance on the capital city Bamako was sufficiently worrying that France intervened ahead of a planned regional intervention force that is still in the pre-deployment phase.

Given the spillover to neighbouring countries, including the militant strike against a gas facility in Algeria, the international response must be accelerated quickly.

But Mali is a perfect vehicle for the three leaders to discuss lessons learned from the past decade and how the US will wage what was previously called the war on terror going forward.

In the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, Fred Kaplan suggests the military and Obama administration have all but abandoned counter-insurgency (Coin).

It would be interesting to hear if Mr Hagel and Mr Kerry see a risk in the potential rise and fall of Coin - a repeat of the same mistakes made after Vietnam.

Syria

There is no appetite for direct intervention in Syria. The US strategy has been to prepare for the day after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad falls.

Mr Brennan should be pressed on the intelligence community's assessment as to how likely that is, and the implications for Syria and the region the longer it takes.

The US recently recognised the reformed opposition as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people.

Mr Kerry should outline next steps to increase the opposition's political legitimacy as a viable alternative to the existing regime.

Given recent reports (since discredited) that Syria recently employed chemical weapons, Mr Hagel should reaffirm the administration's red line that the US will take appropriate (if unspecified) action, should a desperate Mr Assad choose to use them.

All three leaders should amplify what the Arab Awakening has done to US influence in the region and make clear to an increasingly sceptical Congress that the US must remain fully engaged in light of the turmoil and not pull back.

The budget

The new national security team can send a powerful signal to a parochial legislature that when wars end, requirements for diplomacy, development and intelligence increase.

While cuts are inevitable across the board, they must be clear about the potential strategic implications.

The failure to sustain adequate levels of resource across all relevant agencies, not just the Department of Defense, can lead to tragic surprises, like those experienced on September 11, in 2001 and 2012.

During the recent presidential election, questions were raised about American leadership and its indispensability or decline.

Perceptions around the world do matter. All three leaders must emphasise Congress' vital role.

Nothing will haemorrhage American power and influence faster than a self-inflicted wound like another trip to the fiscal brink - much less a jump off the so-called fiscal cliff.