Kevin Baron / The top national security stories of the year - pressofAtlanticCity.com: Commentary

Kevin Baron / The top national security stories of the year - pressofAtlanticCity.com: Commentary

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Kevin Baron / The top national security stories of the year

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Posted: Tuesday, January 1, 2013 12:01 am

Here are the big national security issues that mattered in 2012:

1. Obama and his generals

This year, Democrats finally owned national security for the first time in decades. It began with the 2011 Osama bin Laden raid, sure, but the cement began to set after Obama rewrote the national security strategy and built a new defense budget to heed the Budget Control Act with close buy-in from top brass. Republican attacks trying to put daylight between the president and the Pentagon fell flat.

2. Iran and red lines

Another year of threats, warnings, rhetoric, bombast and ... well, little has changed in the stand off between Tehran and the West. While the war of words over "red lines" in Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon grew heated, it made for much tension but little needle moving.

3. The sequester

For more than a year, every national security official in the Iron Triangle has begged Congress and the White House to make a budget deal. Nothing worked, from threats of job losses to having to shut down nuclear missiles. Even when Republican and Democratic members of Congress pushed their leaders to talk, silence reigned, proving that in America today politics trumps everything - even national security.

4. The Petraeus affair

The fall of the legend came quickly and suddenly after Election Day, when nobody was looking. Sure, Gen. David Petraeus' had detractors (not everyone drank the Kool-Aid), but no one predicted his day would come via an extramarital affair with his own biographer. CIA directors are supposed to be able to keep secrets. Instead, that post and several major military command leadership postings have been undermined as Gen. John Allen's emails remain under investigation by the Pentagon inspector general.

5. What to make of Leon Panetta?

For at least six months, more water cooler time in the Pentagon has been spent talking about Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's successor than his legacy. That should tell you something. Panetta came to Defense as a hawk and budget guru, bolstered by the successful Bin Laden raid and his resume as White House budget chief and House Budget Committee chairman. In his first few months, Panetta helped forge the civilian-military partnership that wrote the Pentagon budget. But he also proved unable to move Congress one inch on sequester. By the end of summer, Panetta was a lame duck in many Washington eyes. The jury is out on what, exactly, Panetta will be remembered for when he heads back to his California walnut farm next year.

6. Staying out of Syria

Early and often, the Pentagon's message to the rebels fighting President Bashar Assad's forces was clear: Good luck. General Martin E. Dempsey has repeated that the U.S. military is perfectly happy staying out of the morass in Iraq - uh, we mean Syria. The United States has been stretched from Afghanistan to Libya, and few in Washington or Europe have moved to create and enforce no-fly zones or arm rebels (inviting retaliatory attacks on U.S. installations or allies). When the fighting does stop, the United States will want to fill the security vacuum with friendly faces, somehow. The only certainty: The Syrian war looks to continue well into 2013.

7. Afghanistan and the forgotten exit

Remember the war? Few do. Commanders over there say that thanks to the surge of 30,000 troops that ended in September, they made headway against the insurgency, al Qaida and "Haqqani network" leaders and held territory from the enemy, while Afghan security forces steadily own more responsibilities nationwide. But the war polled below 7 percent as the most important issue facing the country in this election season. With little public attention on the war, Obama got NATO in May to commit to his timeline. Voters just want out.

8. Al Qaida: dead or alive?

The United States has beaten the "core" of al Qaida that attacked the U.S. homeland on Sept. 11, 2001, officials like to say. But they also warn that its tentacles continue to spread across the Middle East and North Africa. Maybe both can be true, but the question for 2013 is how much the U.S. military will stay in pursuit, as Obama surrogates like top Pentagon lawyer Jeh Johnson float to key allies a phrase considered taboo for conservatives: "law enforcement."

9. China and the pivot

While the United States races to build stronger alliances with China's neighbors, the Pentagon and the People's Liberation Army have reached new levels of cooperation thanks to Obama's active open hand policy with Beijing. U.S. senior military leaders want Beijing to be a partner in global security. Na�ve? Maybe. Worth the try? Definitely. It's early, it's tense, but so far, it's getting better, not worse.

10. Women in combat

The Pentagon finally opened tens of thousands of combat jobs to women, a decade after many of them saw plenty of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not good enough, say some combat veterans who have seen their careers and paychecks limited and who have endured gender-based harassment. Veterans began suing the government for full equality and access to combat jobs they argue is long overdue. Two cases are before federal courts that could change one of the last restrictive service rules in the U.S. military, forever.

11. Not top 10: gays in the military

The repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" endured enormous Pentagon and public debate, study, concern, nervous hand-wringing, and even outright warnings that openly gay service members could lead directly to distracted troops in foxholes suffering battlefield injuries. But in the year since its September 2011 repeal, the blowback has been nonexistent. Gays in the military? Sounds as archaic as all the worry over blacks in the military, or women on ships, or ... women in combat.

Kevin Baron is a national security reporter at Foreign Policy.

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