Michèle Flournoy is chief executive of the Center for a New American Security and former undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration. Richard Fontaine is president of the center and former foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Contrary to the oft-stated ideal, politics has never stopped at the water’s edge, and it will be no different in 2015. Yet the United States is strongest when it is guided by bold, bipartisan leadership that, while acknowledging policy differences between and within the parties, articulates a foreign policy vision that attracts and sustains broad support. To that end, there are a series of steps that our divided government should embrace this year. A bipartisan national security agenda for America’s divided government should include:
●Passing trade promotion authority and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Over the past six years, America’s only new free trade agreements have been those with South Korea, Panama and Colombia. In the meantime, the world — and Asia in particular — has not stood still, and bilateral and regional trade arrangements are proliferating, often without U.S. participation. In passing TPA and then TPP, Washington would boost the U.S. economy while sending a strong strategic signal of sustained engagement with Asia. TPP could also help pave the way for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership agreement with Europe.
●Reverse “sequestration” and authorize sweeping defense reforms. Sequestration was designed to threaten budget outcomes so unpalatable that the desire to avoid them would induce Republicans and Democrats to compromise on taxes and entitlements. They did not, and draconian defense cuts have harmed military training and readiness, restricted deployments, undercut investments in modernization, and created a degree of uncertainty that is causing some of our best and brightest service members to vote with their feet. Congress and the president should work together to prevent the reestablishment of sequestration caps in 2016 and give the defense secretary both a predictable budget topline and the flexibility to allocate funds to the highest priorities. They should also authorize sorely needed defense reforms, including a new round of base realignments and closures, reduction-in-force authority and meaningful retirement incentives to enable the right-sizing of the civilian workforce, and health-care reforms to enhance the quality of care provided to service members and their families while reducing costs.
●Rescind the president’s deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The administration’s plan requires the full withdrawal of all U.S. troops (except those guarding the U.S. Embassy) from Afghanistan by the end of 2016. This calendar-driven timeline unnecessarily risks the gains made over 13 years by coalition and Afghan security forces and threatens a replay of post-withdrawal Iraq. The administration should replace that timeline with a conditions-based approach that retains a residual U.S. force to train, advise and assist the Afghan National Security Forces and conduct counterterrorism operations as needed while both the president and congressional Republicans work to shore up bipartisan support for sustained investment in Afghan forces.
●Revise the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), provide meaningful support to Syrian rebels and intensify diplomatic engagement on Iraq and Syria. U.S. military operations in Iraq and Syria today are conducted under the 2001 AUMF that focused on the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks — al-Qaeda and its affiliates. In passing a new AUMF that specifically covers the Islamic State, Congress and the administration should engage in a deep debate about the proper objectives of U.S. action and a realistic strategy to achieve them. Part of this strategy will require moving as quickly as possible to provide military support to the moderate Syrian opposition, which has not yet taken place on any meaningful scale. It will also require permitting small units of Special Operations forces to work with local Iraqi forces in taking territory back in that country. Most important, U.S. diplomatic efforts should focus both on pushing the Baghdad government to reach necessary accommodations with the Sunni and Kurdish populations and on defining a path to negotiated peace in Syria with an empowered opposition.
●Permit crude oil exports, expand liquefied-natural-gas export permits and fully leverage America’s newfound energy position. With the revolution in tight oil and shale gas, domestic energy production has emerged as a new source of strength. Washington should take maximum advantage of these developments and push for more fully integrated energy markets in North America and beyond. Congress should lift the ban on the export of crude oil from the United States. In addition, Washington should work with allies in Europe and Asia to reduce their dependence on Russian and Iranian energy.
● Strengthen NATO’s deterrent posture and increase assistance to Ukraine. These steps are critical to reassuring anxious allies, including the Baltic countries and Poland, of the alliance’s commitment to their defense and to sending a strong signal to Moscow not to interfere in NATO states. The administration and Congress should also increase U.S. economic and military assistance to Ukraine, including providing lethal defensive equipment to the country’s armed forces.
This is an ambitious agenda, to be sure. But for all of their disagreements, Republicans and Democrats should be able to come together behind a program of action that protects our national interests and furthers our values. The bipartisan agenda we lay out here represents steps toward a renewed American internationalism that resonates with the country’s best traditions — and those of both parties. Putting it into place will require leadership — not just on the global stage but also at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. In crossing party lines to embrace these steps, our leaders can demonstrate that the government may be divided, but the country should never be when it comes to protecting and advancing our national interests. That’s not a bad way to start this new political era.