As the political parties convene in Tampa and Charlotte for pre-game huddles, the American people might want to look beyond the trash talk and victory dances. What should be the first plays our next Commander-in-Chief runs?
First: Get U.S. Power Right
The most important thing our next president can do for our national security is get our domestic house in order. U.S. power doesn't come from simply declaring that America is great and exceptional: It comes from doing great things and upholding exceptional values. To maintain U.S. strength, we need to have a strong economy with modern infrastructure and an educated, creative citizenry -- one that includes the world's brightest and hardest working people. That is the only way we can compete in a global world with new, rising powers.
President Obama has made real, unsung strides in education. We need more, so Americans can have jobs today and create the jobs of tomorrow. To get our economy in order, our next president needs to be honest with his own party about entitlement reform, facing down the selfishness of the Boomer generation's demands. And he needs to confront Republican hypocrisy on tax breaks for millionaires, which let Mitt Romney pay a lower taxes rate than most entry level workers struggling to pay off student debt.
He needs courage to tell the American people that we need comprehensive immigration reform to bring the hardest working people to our shores. And he needs to reinvest in infrastructure, because bridges that stay up, high-speed trains and a faster Internet are like Eisenhower's interstate highway system -- essential for American strength.
These are security necessities, because U.S. strength does not start with guns or diplomats -- it begins with creating a strong, innovative society and an economy that is the envy of the world.
Second: Help China Become a Responsible, Less Jingoistic Power
America does not want to go to war with China -- not now, not in the future. Even a trade war would devastate our economy. But we cannot cede power to a country that refuses ethnic and religious freedom, funds dictatorships around the world, makes territorial claims on its neighbors, and steals our intellectual property.
For all the loose talk about China, our biggest threat is not military or economic: It is the nationalism fed to Chinese youth and a cultivated victim mentality. This dangerous mindset sees international anger at China as unfair and casts agreements as zero-sum. It makes straight talk and win-win solutions impossible.
China is our most important challenge: President Obama's attempt to shift our focus to Asia is right. We need to be firm diplomatically while building military trust through joint exercises. But we also need to convince China's rulers that the jingoistic nationalism they are teaching their schoolchildren and enabling in their society will tie their hands domestically, limit their options internationally, and ultimately be as dangerous for them as for us.
Third: Let Iran Have Nuclear Energy, not Nuclear Weapons
President Obama should get immense credit for establishing the strongest set of sanctions Iran has ever seen. Today, Iran is isolated from the world, surrounded by our allies, and those sanctions are crippling their economy. But how do sanctions keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon? That happens two ways: angry citizens rise up against their leaders, or leaders spooked by an economic free-fall come to the table to make a deal. The first is a neoconservative fantasy -- Iran's leading activists are still locked up after the 2009 protests; they aren't about to take to the streets again.
For sanctions to pay off, we need to make a deal from our position of strength. The only agreement likely to work is one that allows Iran to have nuclear energy, but forces them to stop short of a nuclear weapon and submit to robust international inspections. This is far from perfect: Nuclear energy can be reprocessed into nuclear weaponry if Iran chooses to "break out." But it is immensely better than war. Dropping bombs is unlikely to halt Iran's nuclear program -- only a ground invasion could guarantee that. If history is any guide, bombing could even speed it up -- as Israel's attack on Iraq's reactor did there. And it will almost certainly result in major retaliation against Israel, with Iranian conventional bombs and terrorist allies attacking their civilian population.
Needed: Some Straight Talk
Finally, our next president needs to reboot our stale political conversation. Mitt Romney has surrounded himself with trigger-happy neoconservatives from the Bush Administration. President Obama has to live with a left wing that thinks America can retreat into its shell and the world will be fine.
Both contenders need to help Americans understand today's world. If we don't want our ships to get hijacked by pirates, Middle Eastern countries to launch nuclear wars and a life without coffee and bananas because other countries can't secure their food systems, we are going to need a robust military, strong diplomatic capacity, and aid to other countries.
We live in a time of "mutual indispensability" as Les Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, has said. Other countries can rarely pull themselves together to act without U.S. leadership. But the U.S. can do little by itself. That balancing act requires an adept, practiced Commander-in-Chief. We must choose wisely.
This piece first appeared in AOL Defense.