From Obama and the generals to women in combat, here are the big issues that mattered in 2012.
1. Obama and his generals
This election 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 President 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. Obama delivered the plan at the Pentagon in January, flanked by the joint chiefs. The result: Republican attacks from Mitt Romney, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-OH), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) trying to put daylight between the president and the Pentagon fell flat. If there was any doubt before, Obama is commander in chief.
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. The war of words -- and timelines -- over "red lines" in Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon grew heated among Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minster Ehud Barak, GOP candidate Mitt Romney, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey. It made for much tension, but little needle moving.
3. The sequester
Doomsday. Shooting oneself in the head. Catastrophic. 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. Now, the stalemate has reached a second Christmas, 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's brazen public rise to celebrity power had detractors (not everyone drank the Kool-Aid), but few outside his inner circle predicted the good general's 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. And the book on Petraeus will be a whole different read.
5. What to make of Leon Panetta?
For at least six months, arguably 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 DoD as a defense 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. Maybe that game is above his paygrade, but 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 at the Pentagon 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 al-Assad's forces was clear: Good luck. General Dempsey has repeated that the U.S. military is perfectly happy staying out of the morass in Iraq -- uh, we mean Syria. The fact is, 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 across on U.S. installations or allies). But 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 Qaeda and "Haqqani network" leaders, 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. Fully 98 percent of Democrats said that President Obama's plan to end combat and pull troops by 2014 was not fast enough. With little public attention on the war, Obama got NATO in May to commit to his timeline, even if his own White House is waffling. And he flipped his support for the war against Romney, who had no Plan B to offer. D.C. hawks may argue in their echo chamber over the pace of the timeline -- but nobody outside of the Beltway is playing along. Voters just want out.
8. Al Qaeda: dead or alive?
The United States has beaten the "core" of al Qaeda 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. Naïve? Mabye. 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 earlier this year, 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 endured gender-based harassment. This year, veterans began suing the U.S. 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 the conservative movement barely up put a fight to stop the repeal, and 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.
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