How GOP can reclaim its position as the party Americans trust on security

Carving out a relevant, national voice is the preeminent challenge facing Republican leadership in the 111th Congress. Presently, the economy and domestic affairs are at the top of the American political agenda. Yet, the party of Abraham Lincoln needs to focus as well on reclaiming its place as the party that Americans trust and turn to for leadership and guidance on national security matters.

The truth is, any discussion of a so-called Republican vision for U.S. national security just after President Obama’s rather successful crossing of the 100-day mark may seem premature. However, I’m an optimist and, at this early date, see rays of hope and sources of opportunity for congressional Republicans.

The House Armed Services Committee has a long record of reaching across the aisle in common cause. Republicans intend to work hard to uphold that tradition where possible and oppose policies on principle where required. Indeed, Republicans on the Armed Services Committee intend to uphold the role of the “loyal opposition.”

To achieve this goal, there are three areas where I believe Republicans can carve out an essential role to play. Indeed, if we do our job well with respect to these objectives, it is quite possible that President Obama might well partner with congressional Republicans to carry out many of his defense policies.

These areas, which I will call the three pillars of national security, are grounded in our party’s foundational beliefs and should help congressional Republicans chart a more effective path forward.

• The first pillar: Promote policies that ensure the Global War on Terror remains, in fact, global and a war in which we are fully engaged. It’s troubling that many in Washington apparently reject the view that the ongoing threat must be confronted globally and — equally important — within the paradigm of armed conflict where the military is on the frontlines.

From our side, fighting terrorists and prosecuting them under the laws of war remain a core principle of post-Sept. 11 Republican policy. It seems to me, many in Congress continue to advocate that a law enforcement paradigm is more appropriate for preventing terrorism and prosecuting those who engage in such acts — an approach we saw evolve after the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 with less than successful results.

It remains to be seen if the new administration will adopt this view as well, but two key decision points may help reveal some of the thinking. Regarding detainees, the president, to his credit, now supports the military commission framework created by Congress in 2006 to prosecute detainees in Guantanamo, albeit in what will be a modified form. It is unclear, however, whether congressional Democrats will support this policy shift and embrace the law of war paradigm with respect to prosecuting terrorists.

A second example is the military’s role in preventing al Qaeda franchises from emerging in ungoverned spaces. Innovative tools, such as the Department of Defense’s building partnership capacity programs — key for combatant commander engagement — risk being swept into traditional State Department security assistance programs. Republicans must be vigilant and support the president’s efforts to provide our commanders the tools they need to keep our country safe.

• The second pillar: Ensure that as we engage with our adversaries —both former and current — those actions don’t breed collective insecurity amongst our allies. Whether with a former rival like Russia or a present-day challenger like Iran, diplomatic engagement should not be translated by other nations as weakness or result in strategies that employ multilateralism that subordinates our national interest or compromises well-established commitments to our friends and allies.

For example, whether we are negotiating with Russia on strategic arms or engaging Iran, the administration must do so taking into account that more than 30 countries currently rely on the U.S. nuclear security umbrella. For example, if our friends lose confidence in the reliability of U.S. extended deterrence, then we inadvertently open the door for increased proliferation — an outcome we must work hard to avoid.

Put simply, a predisposition to engage with adversaries — present or past — risks creating a wedge between the U.S. and our allies if not done in a careful way. For Republicans, engagement with rivals is not an end in itself. While efforts at global outreach are useful, the utility of diplomatic efforts must be measured by the ability to generate collective security.

• The third pillar: Take steps to build capability for both near-term conflicts and long-term challenges by promoting a robust commitment to defense spending. We must prevent the return of hollow defense budgets, peace dividends, and the procurement holiday that marked defense policy during the 1990s.

We must remember too that the budget is policy and without sufficient funding it is little more than words on a PowerPoint slide. When the migration into the base budget of items previously funded in supplemental appropriations is taken into account, the actual levels of defense spending must be viewed through a new lens. We cannot afford to mask our true military requirements by a system of accounting that hides rather than reveals our nation’s commitment to defense spending.

Do we really know the world has changed so much since 2006 —the year of our last Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) — that we are somehow at less risk and require reduced capability? Are we so confident in our diplomatic efforts with Iran and North Korea that we can afford cuts in both European and U.S. missile defenses? These are questions that must be asked, and, in turn, answered.

If congressional Republicans are to once again become the party that the American people trust to be the stewards of their security interests, then we must not devolve into a party of no. We must adopt the tone of a truly loyal opposition while carving out clear policies that effectively protect Americans and advance our security interests.

McHugh is the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.