The militant Islamist threat to the West is not limited to the activities of al Qaeda. The current Iranian regime, which has been at war with America since its inception, remains a fundamental threat. In the last 10 years, it has accelerated a nuclear program that has drawn it closer to possessing a bomb; developed and directed proxy forces that threaten its immediate neighbors and Israel; facilitated the killings of Americans in multiple theaters of war; and aided and abetted al Qaeda in the region.
This regional environment today is underappreciated. Acknowledging these challenges and the risks they pose should, in fact, be prerequisites for any serious policy debate. Only through an understanding of the threats present can we begin to ask the key questions that should be guiding policy decisions going forward. Debates over the national debt, the prosecution of the current wars and America’s commitments to its allies, for example, are among the issues that require such an accounting.
Discussions surrounding the nation’s deficit and how best to overcome it too often treat defense and national security-related resources simply as quantitative factors and line items to be haggled over and compromised. Lost in this discussion are the more substantive questions. How will potentially deep cuts to the defense budget impinge upon America’s ability to simultaneously respond to exigent crises in states like Pakistan or Yemen while maintaining other global commitments and responsibilities? Can we expect “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism tools to defeat al Qaeda networks when there has never been such a historical precedent? Similar and more immediate questions must be asked regarding Afghanistan and Iraq. What risks are we absorbing if a premature withdrawal from Afghanistan, driven by political reasons unrelated to the actual war, leads to the re-empowerment of Islamist militants in South Asia and the emboldening of al Qaeda globally? How will we confront an increasingly hard-line Iranian regime on a path toward nuclear weapons if we fail to secure a lasting, credible strategic partnership with Iraq?
Beyond Islamist militancy, the coming of the Arab Spring has reinforced the necessity of thinking through contingency plans and being resourced adequately to respond to international crises and developments that America could not ignore without absorbing significant risks or missing opportunities.
Ten years later, having witnessed the courage and sacrifices of countless brave men and women defending and advancing America’s interests, it is imperative that we ground our way forward in the reality of the evolving and still dangerous environment we face.
Maseh Zarif is research manager for the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project. The project monitors and analyzes key and emerging threats to U.S. national security, including Iran and the al Qaeda network.