National Journal’s National Security Insiders, polled ahead of the election, were deeply divided over which foreign-policy challenge will prove most pressing in the next administration.
A plurality of Insiders—33 percent—said Iran would be the biggest challenge facing the White House. “Iran’s existential threat to Israel and its nuclear threat to key U.S. allies will likely make it the No. 1 priority" for the administration, one Insider said.
The United States has been steadily tightening sanctions on Tehran to try to derail its nuclear program. Meanwhile, speculation continues over whether Israel might launch a preemptive military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities—with or without Washington’s support. “Crunch time is coming,” one Insider said. “Buckle up.”
The next-largest faction, 24 percent of Insiders, said that Afghanistan and Pakistan would be the biggest priority. With Afghanistan, questions remain about the ability of local security forces to take over security control of the still-volatile country after international combat troops withdraw in 2014. “If pressures force the U.S. to effect a near-total withdrawal from Afghanistan, the next [administration] will probably be seen to have ‘lost’ the Afghanistan war,” one Insider said. “Failed wartime leaders are not well remembered in America.”
“Afghanistan may become no man’s land if a status-of-forces agreement is not signed, as was the case in Iraq,” another Insider added. “Pakistan may become an out-of-control nuclear menace.”
China will be the biggest challenge, another 20 percent of Insiders said. “The challenge of China will make it the policy, if not military, equivalent of the Soviet Union for this generation,” one Insider said.
Some Insiders had other suggestions. “Securing cyberspace will be the biggest issue facing the next administration,” one Insider said. “Since most of our commerce and a great deal of our security are dependent on our ability to have unencumbered access to this domain, it will be a top priority for it to be secured for the use of all.”
Insiders by a two-thirds majority were largely united in their forecast that diplomacy would not curtail Iran’s nuclear program in the next administration. Negotiations between six major world powers, including the United States, have so far failed to convince Iran to halt its enrichment of uranium. Meanwhile, the White House is denying news reports that Washington and Tehran have agreed to hold one-on-one negotiations following Tuesday's election, even as it insists that President Obama is prepared to meet bilaterally.
"Iran's leaders are too deeply committed to obtaining nuclear weapons to back down in the face of entreaties from The Great Satan and escalating economic sanctions," one Insider said. "Only regime change can alter Iran's nuclear course." Another Insider added that the U.S. appears to be "inexorably headed toward the use of force with another decade of unanticipated consequences and enormous costs" without a viable diplomatic solution.
But one-third of Insiders believed its not too late for a diplomatic solution-- with a few caveats. "Only if the loopholes in the sanctions are tightened and more sanctions are imposed," one Insider said. "Iran still exports 800,000 barrels per day. The number should be much closer to zero."
1. What will be the biggest foreign-policy issue facing the next administration?
- Iran 33%
- Afghanistan/Pakistan 24%
- China 20%
- Other 11%
- Terrorism 9%
- Syria 4%
"That said, we are all just guessing on this one. After all, after the election, the world gets their vote."
"Because it is the most difficult to solve."
"In reality, the biggest issue is almost always one that's not on 'the list.' "
"Bush 'won' the Iraq war, but [the next administration] will be less fortunate in the Afghanistan war. It has turned out not to be the 'good' war. If pressures force the U.S. to effect a near-total withdrawal from Afghanistan, the next [administration] will probably be seen to have 'lost' the Afghanistan war. Failed wartime leaders are not well remembered in America."
"Afghanistan may become no man's land if a status-of-forces agreement is not signed, as was the case in Iraq. Pakistan may become an out-of-control nuclear menace."
"Iran is complicated, but China is the truly hard problem. Neither they nor we know how to help create a positive future in the Asia Pacific."
"In the near term, it is Iran and terrorism. Over the four-year term, it will likely all come back to China, in part because it will come back to our debt and economy."
"China stands alone as an issue and also directly impacts all others listed in some manner or other."
"Terrorism over the next three to four years. Proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially bioterrorism, is a grave threat."
“Fiscal cliff.... [Within psychologist Abraham] Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, diplomacy is near self-actualization. We need to think about food, clothing, and shelter.”
"All of the above—that is the joy of being president."
2. Will diplomacy succeed in curtailing Iran’s nuclear program in the next administration?
- No 67%
- Yes 33%
"Diplomacy alone cannot work; diplomacy backed by the possibility of concrete steps to support it could work, but there are never any guarantees. Also, we have to be careful not to back Iran into a corner with no way out. Otherwise they may perceive military action as the only solution to economic isolation and the potential for regime collapse. See, for example, Japan's breakout response to sanctions prior to WWII, and Hitler's obsession with the 1914-18 embargo on Germany and his efforts, through a quest to lock in resources from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, that Germany never again be subject to such economic 'blackmail.' "
"If 'curtailing' implies a significant slowing of the program."
"Iran may hold in abeyance its nuclear program for several years if necessary to wait out the United States and the West. It is not South Africa. It historically believes it should dominate the Persian Gulf area and extend power into the Indian Ocean. The United States and erstwhile Western pundits fundamentally do not understand Iran. We must continue diplomacy and sanctions but we should take a 'long view' of Iran and the region."
"Diplomacy has never been enough. Sanctions are good for domestic political consumption but cannot be effective without Russian support and cooperation. Regime change from within Iran is our best hope, but that's unlikely to occur in time."
"Iran can bear the pain of sanctions for the geopolitical benefits it accrues discomforting the U.S. and Israel."
"The mismatch between what the two sides could settle for is just too great. But a tacit deal—Iran backing off without giving up—could easily serve our interest and theirs."
"It will continue to fail unless we put a real deal on the table, which we won't. In fairness, it might still fail if we were serious about cutting a deal."
"Iran has gone too far down the path of creating a nuclear weapon for it to be dissuaded solely by diplomacy. Any diplomatic efforts to get Iran to veer from this path must be backed up by sanctions and the credible threat of military force."
"I'm afraid if we want to halt Iran's nuclear program, we will have to resort to force, which is the only thing the mullahs understand."
"Successful diplomacy requires an interested partner."
"Negotiation is a sign of weakness in the Persian view. It will take a punch in the nose, nothing less. The mullahs understand just how vulnerable they really are, and, Shia millenarianism aside, have in the past responded very well to even modestly forceful push-back."
"Unless Ahmadinejad is booted from power.... Then, things may change in terms of being able to influence and negotiate with a new regime."
"Sometime next winter/spring things will calm down."
"It can succeed, if the U.S. administration actually uses diplomacy to pursue that goal."
"Not diplomacy but economic self-interest. We've turned a corner on use of sanctions, at least where a nation is so reliant on the external sector, as is Iran."
National Journal’s National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of defense and foreign-policy experts.
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