The writers, both Republicans, represent Nebraska and Iowa, respectively, in the U.S. Senate.
We just finished the Munich Security Conference, one of the most important gatherings on global threats. Now home, we offer Nebraskans and Iowans six observations:
1) Global stability is at its lowest point since the Cold War’s conclusion in 1989.
Our challenges are real and big. Yes, the Middle East has been a mess for ages, but this is different. This is more than common war. We are witnessing the decline of states and the international system the West has built.
Many Democrats want to blame President George W. Bush for the faulty intelligence that preceded the decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003. Many Republicans are rightly aghast by President Barack Obama’s premature withdrawal of troops from that same conflict nine years later, giving rise to ISIS.
We need a broader, shared American understanding of how we got into our current foreign policy situation. But even more important than shared history, we need a reality-based picture of the future.
To protect our national security, we will be engaged in a decades-long battle against jihadis, both at home and abroad. Some pine for isolationism, but make no mistake: More San Bernardinos are inevitable. There will be more jihadis bringing this war to us. The next president’s first years will be consumed with fixing the present wreckage.
2) The Syrian war is a tragedy that rips your heart out. And it has now spread to dozens of nations.
We were in Serbia in southeastern Europe last week and met with some of the refugees trying to flee their homeland — moms, babies, kids the age of our kids and, tragically, probably some infiltrating terrorists masquerading as the vulnerable.
There were 23 million Syrians when the civil war began. Today, nearly half are displaced from their homes — over 4 million of them beyond the former nation’s borders. King Abdullah of Jordan (an ally we should be supporting more forcefully) told us of the unrest in his country, where many schools now have more Syrian than Jordanian children. None of this is sustainable.
3) While it is complicated, the Syrian spillover is not a random evil like a tornado or hurricane.
Russia is in effect “weaponizing” emigration to advance its geopolitical goals. This is no accident.
The Russians — and Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is increasingly a Russian and Iranian puppet dictator — deliberately bomb civilians, causing them to flee, thus killing would-be internal fighters and taxing would-be external opposition. They essentially have the ability to dial up and dial down refugee exodus pacing. This produces havoc in the receiving nations of Europe. That is not accidental.
4) We need a shared theory of what Vladimir Putin is doing in Europe.
Many U.S. generals believe that Putin regards the terms on which the Cold War ended (we won) as the worst event in Russian history. And he wants to use current U.S. self-doubt as an occasion to renegotiate.
He wants access to the Middle East and the Mediterranean Sea via a vassal state in western Syria. He wants Russia to be perceived as big, and actually to be big. He wants to dominate the internal politics of his neighbors. And, critically, he wants to break NATO.
We are foolish to see his aims as benign. A Ukrainian invasion is probably only part of what he’s plotting during our presidential transition.
5) Soon, all wars will have a cyber component.
There will be traditional wars with cyber aspects. And there will be stand-alone cyber conflicts.
But the future is less about massed armies and more about the combination of information technology, unmanned systems and surgical special forces. In all of these areas, we are unprepared and under-investing.
6) The world cries out for U.S. leadership.
We met privately with seven heads of state, and their message was unmistakable: “We don’t know who the U.S. is anymore. Your enemies don’t fear you, and your friends don’t trust you.”
Let us be clear: There is extraordinary gratitude the world over for U.S. troops; our men and women in uniform are the finest in the world.
But there is also deep anxiety. We say this delicately, as we work hard to respect the office of the presidency, but our allies everywhere are baffled. We asked one head of state, What single lesson would you like us to report back to our bosses, our constituents? The reply: “Get us a U.S. president who will know that the U.S. needs to lead. We need you. All the freedom-loving nations of the world need you.”
Reasonable citizens and candidates for office should wrestle with what — and where and when and how — U.S. leadership looks like in the world. But the necessity of U.S. leadership is inarguable — for our allies and for us.