A Bipartisan National Security Agenda

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A Bipartisan National Security Agenda

When Mitt Romney and Barack Obama meet, they should outline a consensus on four common sense issues.

The White House announced on Wednesday that President Obama will host Governor Romney for a post-election lunch in Washington on Thursday.  The lunch is symbolic of the best of America, a bi-partisan tradition of coming together after a tough election campaign.  Given the challenges facing the United States, it is important that President Obama and Governor Romney seize the opportunity to move beyond symbolism and set a bipartisan agenda on four key national security issues.

In his concession speech, Governor Romney stated, “the nation, as you know, is at a critical point. At a time like this, we can't risk partisan bickering and political posturing. Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people's work. And we citizens also have to rise to the occasion.” 

President Obama responded in his victory speech on election night in Chicago, stating “tonight you voted for action, not politics as usual. You elected us to focus on your jobs, not ours. And in the coming weeks and months, I am looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together.” 

While principled differences will continue to divide Americans on many issues, Democrats and Republicans can and should find common ground on the following matters without delay:

Stop Sequestration

In the Boca Raton debate on foreign policy, President Obama declared that the “…sequester is not something that I proposed; it's something that Congress has proposed. It will not happen." Similarly, Mitt Romney stated during the campaign that, “the idea of cutting our military commitment by a trillion dollars over this decade is unthinkable and devastating,” and even his former running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), the House Budget Committee Chairman and a stalwart fiscal conservative, has said “We believe in the doctrine of peace through strength. Strength means having strong national defense, and that is why we are steadfastly opposed to the president's reckless and devastating defense cuts.”

This should be the first area of common ground between the parties.  As Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned lawmakers in a November 2011 letter, sequestration will be “devastating,” yielding “[t]he smallest ground forces since 1940,” “a fleet of fewer than 230 ships, the smallest level since 1915,” and “[t]he smallest tactical fighter force in the history of the Air Force.” In explaining how such a limited force could impact national security, General Martin Dempsey told Congress that sequestration could, “increase the likelihood of conflict.”

Based on the foregoing consensus, the White House and Congress should immediately agree that sequestration is off the table and that the American military will not be held hostage to what may be contentious negotiations and debates on taxes, entitlements, domestic spending and the debt ceiling.

Support the Asia Pivot

China is engaged in an unrelenting maritime rise symbolized by the recent launch of its first aircraft carrier, which it is already taking off and landing aircraft.  This is in addition to whole new classes of technologically-advanced destroyers and submarines.  Given that the vast majority of the world’s trade moves through the “global commons” of the Pacific and Indian Oceans and that the future economic prosperity of the United States and the world is critically linked to this region, America must ensure that Asian sea lanes and markets remain open.

The Obama Administration has sought to reengage in the Pacific with a policy referred to as the “Asia Pivot.” Unfortunately, even America’s Pacific allies do not take the “pivot” seriously because so far it amounts to a couple of hundred Marines being rotated through the Robertson Barracks in Darwin, Australia and the announced deployment of a few lightly-armed Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) to Singapore.  At best, given coming budget cuts outside of sequestration, the Navy intends to increase the Pacific Fleet from 50 warships to 58.  Of those, according to the LA Times, the number of "forward deployed" warships will increase by only four over the next eight years.

For the Asia Pivot to be viewed with seriousness by allies and competitors alike, it is important that the U.S. devote substantially more resources to the Pacific Command by increasing the number of forward deployed ships, ensuring that those warships are ships of the line – cruisers and destroyers as opposed LSC vessels – and, stationing sufficient aircraft, soldiers and Marines in the region.  The White House and Congress should agree to a defense budget that funds the platforms and personnel necessary to demonstrate the seriousness of the pivot to Asia without simply playing a shell game that would strip other key commands of the resources necessary to protect American interests in other parts of the world.

Implement a Military Dream Act

From its inception, the American military has a grand tradition of incorporating foreign soldiers into its ranks.  Examples range from the Marquis de La Fayette and General Andrzej Kościuszko in the Revolution to brave Philippine soldiers and sailors in World War II to men like Jose Gutierrez, a young Guatemalan, who was one of the first U.S. soldiers to be killed in Iraq. 

While the immigration debate in America is complex and will not be easily resolved, one bill that should be introduced and passed on a bipartisan basis is a Military Dream Act that gives a clear path to citizenship for those in the service of this country.  Non-citizens who are willing to fight and die for America deserve to live and vote here. 

Care for Our Veterans

Tens of thousands of American servicemen and women continue to return home from Iraq, Afghanistan and other deployments to find an overburdened Veteran’s Administration.  The backlog of veteran disability claims has doubled, veteran unemployment is at unacceptable levels, there are critical problems with GI Bill payouts, and the wait time to see a mental health care provider can be up to two months long, which is inexcusable given the pressing issues of veteran suicides and homelessness.

Innovative solutions to these pressing problems for our veterans include expanding the reach of the VA health system to better service the 41 percent of veterans who live in rural areas. Where it is not possible to provide hospital or clinical care in such areas, Internet-based consultations, tele-homecare, and tele-monitoring should be made available.  Distressed veterans seeking mental health care should be allowed to access the military’s TRICARE network of providers at the VA’s expense. This would double the number of mental health care providers overnight and reduce wait times.  Instituting a reliable electronic health record, from boot camp to retirement would reduce the VA’s disability claim backlog. 

Furthermore, to reduce future veteran unemployment, all veterans using the GI Bill should be granted in-state college tuition, regardless of their state of residency. 

These are common sense solutions that are relatively straight-forward to implement and would allow us to keep our promise to the men and women who keep us free.

Robert C. O'Brien was a senior foreign policy advisor to Gov. Mitt Romney.  He is the managing partner of the Los Angeles office of a national law firm. Robert served as a U.S. Representative to the United Nations from 2005-2006. His website is: www.robertcobrien.com and he can be followed on Twitter @robertcobrien.