National Security

The Top 10 National Security Stories of the Year

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.

All photos AFP/Getty Images

The List

The World War on Christmas

Five places where Santa really does have to watch his back.

It's that time of year again when Americans head home, gather with family and friends, snuggle up by the fire, and watch cable news hosts inform us about the secular liberal assault against Christmas. To these unhappy warriors, it seems every "Happy Holidays" sign, religiously neutral public display, or White House Christmas Card featuring the president's dog is a slap in the face to America's Christian values.

Fox host Bill O'Reilly -- the undisputed champion of Americans' right to tinsel, crèches, and holiday-specific corporate signage -- recently exhorted his viewers to "stand up and fight against this secular progressivism that wants to diminish the Christmas holiday."

"We have to start to fight back against these people," he averred.

Evidently, the warnings of O'Reilly and his fellow Christmas defenders are working. A recent poll by the left-leaning group Public Policy Polling found that 47 percent of Americans believe that there is indeed a "War on Christmas."

Never mind that a quick glance at any network commercial break or a casual stroll through a department store should reveal that the Christmas spirit is alive and well in America. But that's not true everywhere. Here's a look at five places where the War on Christmas is all too real.

Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

UZBEKISTAN 

This Central Asian dictatorship is one country Santa will be skipping this year. According to the Associated Press, local media reported earlier this month that President Islam Karimov's regime has banned the local version of Santa Claus from television.

The gag order reportedly applies to Ded Moroz (Father Frost), his young female side-kick Snegurochka, and several other folklore characters known throughout the former Soviet world, including the infamous wood witch Baba Yaga. The ban is an attempt to discourage the celebration of holidays and folk figures deemed too Russian or too Western. According to the new decree, Christmas trees are allowed on TV, but only if they are small and pictured at a distance.

Karimov's nationalist, Asian-centric crusade has also targeted some other favorite holidays. Santa's blacklisting is similar to the government's 2005 ban on celebrating New Years Eve in the capitol's public schools. (Uzbekistan's New Year's Eve traditionally falls on the vernal equinox.) The government also canceled Valentine's Day celebrations this year, replacing them with "organized readings of poems by medieval Mughal emperor Babur." How romantic.

NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images

NORTH KOREA 

The officially atheist Hermit Kingdom does not permit the celebration of Christmas, and isn't too thrilled about South Korea's deeply devout Christians celebrating either. Though North Korea's constitution says it guarantees freedom of religion, at the time of Kim Jong Il's death, human rights activists estimated that there were between 50,000 and 70,000 Christians in North Korean labor camps. And those are the lucky ones -- missionaries caught distributing bibles, and anyone caught worshipping secretly can be tortured or executed, or both. So far, Kim Jong Un has turned out to be just as intolerant as his father. One woman told the New York Times in October, "If the government finds out I'm reading the Bible, I'm dead."

North Korea is so worried about Santa and his little helpers that last year, the People's Democratic Republic warned of "unexpected consequences" if the South Korean government allowed a Christian group to light a 100-foot tall Christmas tree-shaped tower just two miles from the North Korean border. The tree tower had been around for years, but as relations between the two countries improved under the South's conciliatory "sunshine policy," the tree was left unlit at Christmastime. Then, in December 2010, with tensions rising again after North Korea's 2009 nuclear test and its May 2010 shelling of a South Korean island, South Korea lit the "tree," which was clearly visible in the North Korean city of Kaesong. The North Korean regime regularly accuses South Korea of trying to spread Christianity among its people, but Uriminzokkiri, a state-run news website, kicked the outrage up a notch, calling the tree lighting "a mean form of psychological warfare."

In 2011, South Korea was going to light the tree -- as well as two more -- despite North Korea's threats, but the lighting was canceled out of respect for the mourning period following Kim Jong Il's death. This year, the South Koreans decided to go ahead with it -- and despite some warnings that Kim Jong Un has decided to strike the tree, the Wall Street Journal reports, "judging from the official state media, North Korea seems not to care very much."

KIM JAE-MYUNG/AFP/Getty Images


VENEZUELA
 

Hugo Chávez is OK with Christmas -- in 2011, he used the holiday as an opportunity to spam the entire country's cell phones with a special Christmas text. He's just not OK with yanqui imperialist Christmas. In 2006, the Venezuelan president reportedly banned Christmas trees and images of Santa Claus from government offices because he deemed them too American. Instead, Chávez said, his country ought to celebrate the holiday with symbols inspired by Venezuelan tradition, such as mangers or ornaments decorated with the tropical Flor de la Navidad (poinsettia).

Other holidays have felt his wrath as well. In 2005, according to the BBC, Chávez urged Venezuelans not to celebrate Halloween, calling the U.S. custom a "game of terror." A tradition in which "families go and begin to disguise their children as witches" is "contrary to our way," he said.

This year, Christmas in Venezuela will be affected yet again -- though more due to incompetence than deliberate policy. The Economist reports that the government takeover of Venezuelan ports has created huge holdups in processing imports. Due to a combination of poor maintenance, inexperienced management, and bureaucratic obstruction, a number of "seasonal products" including trees, toys, and popular Christmas foods are piled up in the country's ports. Some products might not arrive in time for Christmas, the magazine warns.

LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images

SAUDI ARABIA 

In austere Saudi Arabia, non-Muslim religious activities are banned in public -- no churches, no wearing crosses, no importing Bibles, and no Christmas. Expatriates and travelers in the kingdom have found ways to celebrate the holiday, but are generally advised to keep their jingle bells to themselves.

The country's hard-line religious police are especially alert in the days leading up to Christmas and other Christian and Western celebrations. According to a 2004 article from the Associated Press, "Christmas cards are sold under the counter and only in very few stores. Some florists discreetly sell Christmas trees, mostly artificial ones, and poinsettias. One florist told customers that several dozen fresh trees from Holland were intercepted at the airport, hacked to pieces and then sent back to Holland."

In a recent blog post, one American ex-intelligence officer who has lived in Saudi Arabia writes that Christmas celebrations and decorations are tolerated in Western compounds. But outside the compounds, no one should "flaunt the holiday spirit."

Not everyone in the Saudi government is totally bereft of good tidings. As David Keyes pointed out in the Wall Street Journal last year, the Saudi attitude toward the holiday season makes the 2011 holiday card sent out last year by Saudi Ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubeir especially unexpected. It read: "Behold, the angels said: 'O Mary, God giveth thee glad tidings of a Word from Him: his name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, held in honour in this world and hereafter and of (the company of) those nearest to God.'"

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images

CUBA 

Cuba is one place where the law fought Christmas, and Christmas won. In 1969, revolutionary leader Fidel Castro decided the country couldn't afford for Cubans to take the day off during the all-important sugar harvest, so he banned Christmas as a public holiday. The edict lasted for three decades. Yoani Sánchez, FP contributor and award-winning Cuban blogger, remembers growing up during the ban: "Of all the naughty words and phrases I remember from childhood, two stand out as being particularly taboo: ‘Christmas' and ‘Human Rights.'"

In 1998, thanks largely to pressure from the Vatican, the communist government restored Christmas. Not everyone embraced the change. In December 1998, one Cuban newspaper warned its readers to beware of Santa Claus, whom its editors, anticipating Hugo Chávez's position years later, called a symbol of American "consumerism," "cultural hegemony," and "mental colonization." Santa, who one newspaper called "The leading symbol of the hagiography of US mercantilism," bore the brunt of the abuse. (Some of the opposition to American Christmas tradition was more practical: According to one columnist, Christmas trees and artificial snow were inappropriate in a tropical country.)

Today, according to Sánchez, Cuban government institutions mostly remain undecorated during the holiday season, but many in this deeply Catholic country now celebrate Christmas with enthusiasm, decorating their homes and shops with garlands, lights, small plastic trees and images of Santa Claus. "These visual excesses of today are very likely the popular response to all those Christmas eves celebrated in whispers, or totally ignored," she writes.

If even a totalitarian communist government can't defeat Christmas, we probably don't have much to fear from the liberal secular agenda.

ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images