Decision Day in the U.S.: Daunting Security Challenges Ahead

Photo: AP

When the new president walks into the Oval Office on January 20th, the American leader will most likely find a note from Barack Obama, a time honored tradition by departing presidents. Although the notes are not often made public, the ones we know about contain words of encouragement and reflections on the pride of serving the nation at the highest level. 

But what the new president might need more is guidance on how best to proceed on the global stage, as the national security challenges facing the next U.S. president are simply daunting. 

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper summed it up best when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year, “In my 50-plus years in the intelligence business, I cannot recall a more diverse array of challenges and crises than we confront today.” 

On day one, the new commander-in-chief will have to begin determining a course of action on a number of these staggering security challenges.

Russia—President Vladimir Putin presents a challenge to the U.S. unseen since the end of the Cold War—some Kremlin watchers suggest even more so.    Intrusions into Georgia; the annexation of Crimea and fomenting unrest in Eastern Ukraine; military maneuvering near the NATO-member Baltic States, accusations of attempting to influence the U.S. election through cyberattacks, including hacks of the Democratic National Committee (DNC); and the ongoing military intervention in Syria, demonstrate Putin’s desire to make Russia a force to be reckoned with on the world stage.

ISIS—The Syrian Democratic Forces, led mainly by Kurdish fighters, are in the very early stages of a campaign to oust ISIS from its headquarters in Raqqa, Syria.  Meanwhile, another joint military assault is already underway in Mosul, Iraq with no clear sign of how long it will take – and at what cost – to successfully remove ISIS.

But even if ISIS is eventually driven out of what remains of its self declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq, no one expects the threat from ISIS to disappear.  Rather, as Nice, Paris, Brussels, Orlando, and Germany reflect, the group is likely to double down on its proven ability to launch coordinated and inspire lone-wolf terrorist attacks in the West.

Syria—no problem cries out more for immediate humanitarian action than the dire situation in Syria. The continuing onslaught of Aleppo by Syrian and Russian forces inches closer to a breaking point every day, and raises questions about whether anything can be done to prevent what seems inevitable—a splintered nation with millions of displaced – potentially permanently—citizens, overwhelming neighboring countries and Europe.

Iraq—Even if the Mosul campaign is successful in driving out ISIS, sectarian animosity among the Shia, Sunni, and Kurds, rampant corruption within the government, and what is seen as undue Iranian influence present the Iraqi government with formidable challenges. “Once Mosul is taken, these political divisions in Iraq are going to rise in importance, and will challenge the effectiveness of the Iraqi government going forward,” retired General Jack Keane recently told The Cipher Brief.  “And we (the U.S.) must understand full well that Iran has their hands all over preventing the emergence of political unity.”

Iran-  So far, Iran is reportedly adhering to the nuclear deal implemented earlier this year, but as Suzanne Maloney, deputy director of the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution, told the Cipher Brief, there are “deep-seated reciprocal suspicions, and a fierce struggle for influence between Tehran and its regional rivals, all of them American allies. For this reason, the next occupant of the White House will wield enormous influence over the fate of the nuclear deal and, by extension, Iran’s economic prospects and its role in the broader Middle East.”

Afghanistan–  President Obama intended to have nearly all forces out before he left office, but earlier this year, his military advisors convinced him to keep a contingent of 8,400 troops in Afghanistan.   Whether that will be enough to help the faltering Afghan military fight back the Taliban and maintain control of the country, however, is unclear. But former Ambassador Ryan Crocker believes keeping forces in place “will give the next President something to build on. Our history in Afghanistan since the Soviet occupation strongly suggests that the next President make an enduring commitment to a relationship with Afghanistan. “

China– The U.S.’ most high-profile point of contention with China concerns the militarization of the South China Sea, a key global shipping route. Although increasingly frustrated with North Korea, China continues to support President Kim Jong-un, whose frequent nuclear and missile tests threaten the security of the region.  Pyongyang’s actions have led to the U.S. hastening its implementation of an anti-ballistic missile system in the region, which itself has become a flashpoint with China.  There are numerous other points of contention, including monetary policy, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, human rights, and cyberattacks.

Cybersecurity- China hacked OPM, North Korea hacked Sony, Iran hacked a damn in New York, and Russia hacked the DNC.  As Luke Penn-Hall wrote for The Cipher Brief, “Nation-states are motivated by strategic objectives that are specific to each individual actor. However, they often break down into three categories: espionage, attacks, and battlefield preparation.”  CSIS’s James Lewis says “It is important to lay down a marker” when a nation has “gone too far and needs to be checked. The U.S. needs to navigate a narrow and difficult path between inaction and escalation.”   

During this long and messy campaign, sharp distinctions between the two candidates became readily apparent in the national security arena.  Clinton does have a track record as President Obama’s first Secretary of State, but whether she will bring new ideas or a new approach to some of these seemingly intractable problems, is still unclear.  Trump is a businessman who has, for the most part, never had to deal with the magnitude and volatility of global security problems.   Furthermore, many of his positions are vague – he has not elaborated on the polices he intends to pursue.

We asked former CIA and NSA Director Mike Hayden to take a look at what a Donald Trump national security policy would likely entail and former CIA Senior Intelligence Service member John Sipher to do the same for a Hillary Clinton administration.

Pam Benson is managing editor at The Cipher Brief.