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Cybersecurity is one of five key national security issues in 2013

Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock.com

It has been a turbulent year, with violence continuing in Syria, heated debates over the defense-budget topline, and the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. National Journal looks at five key national-security issues that the U.S. will wrangle next year.

1. SYRIA. As the Syrian civil war escalates, observers on all sides are awaiting Washington's next move. Obama administration officials issued strong warnings after the Syrian military loyal to President Bashar al-Assad loaded sarin nerve gas into aerial bombs, insisting that using the chemical weapons on civilians would be a “red line” that could incur a U.S. response. With tens of thousands of Syrians killed, the U.S. and its allies are now planning potential military and diplomatic responses,Global Security Newswire reported. After months keeping distance from the volatile conflict in the run-up to the Nov. 6 presidential elections, Obama may need to get involved after all, as National Journal’s James Kitfield reports, amid signs the Syrian rebellion is becoming increasingly radicalized and the conflict is starting to affect NATO. The Pentagon is already deploying two batteries of Patriot missiles and 400 troops to Turkey to help a NATO force defend Turkish territory from a potential Syrian missile attack. 2013 could bring more action.

2. IRAN. Sanctions in last year’s defense authorization bill penalizing foreign financial institutions that do business with Iran’s central bank had a crippling effect on Tehran’s economy over the last year, especially in conjunction with the European Union oil embargo. The fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill includes new economic sanctions on Iran targeting Tehran’s energy, port, shipping, and shipbuilding sectors, again crafted by Sens. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill. How the Obama administration implements these sanctions—and the effects they have to derail Iran’s nuclear program—will be closely monitored next year. Speculation also continues on whether Israel will take matters into its own hands and launch a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, with or without Washington’s help.

3. CYBERSECURITY. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently outlined new warfare terrain: the Internet. Cybersecurity concerns do not simply include hackers and criminals. Panetta said the greater danger is a cyberattack carried out by nation states or extremist groups that could be as destructive as the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, and "virtually paralyze the nation." Efforts in Congress to pass cybersecurity legislation have floundered in the Senate this past year. The stalled Cybersecurity Act would establish a system of voluntary security standards for certain critical businesses, such as those that control electrical grids or water-treatment plants, and encourage businesses and the government to share cyberthreat information. Critics, including some Republicans and industry members, insist the government should not play a large role in setting standards for private companies. We’ll see if Congress has better luck next year.

4. DEFENSE CUTS. The military budget will see lower top lines over the next decade, regardless of the fiscal-cliff negotiations, because nearly a half-trillion-dollar reduction to defense accounts was mandated by the Budget Control Act. More cuts are possible under sequestration, which would gouge another $500 billion from the Pentagon budget over the next 10 years. And the fiscal-cliff plan proposed by the White House avoids sequestration but calls for $100 billion in defense cuts over that time frame.

Experts disagree on how big a role the defense budget should play in reducing the deficit, and it's a debate sure to continue into next year. Defense-budget defenders such as the American Enterprise Institute’s Mackenzie Eaglen insist that “underfunding” the military forces a less ambitious foreign policy, increases the risk of future conflicts, and will incur greater casualties for American troops. Other prominent experts, such as American University’s Gordon Adams, note that Washington ended its war in Iraq and is winding down combat operations in Afghanistan, and needs “fiscal discipline” to keep defense programs from going over budget and stop the "endless" growth of military pay, health costs, and benefits. “Budget reductions need not compromise any of that superiority, if disciplined management prevails," Adams wrote in a Foreign Policy op-ed. Decisions on how to implement defense cuts over the next year and beyond are sure to spark a firestorm on Capitol Hill, where members are concerned about potential cuts to defense jobs and programs in their districts.

5. EMBASSY SECURITY. The political fallout from the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans will continue into next year. An independent panel charged with investigating the Sept. 11 attack found the State Department suffered from “systemic failures” in its response to the threat in Benghazi, showed a lack of senior leadership and did not have adequate security on the ground. After the report's release, three State Department officials resigned, including Eric Boswell, head of diplomatic security, and Charlene Lamb, the deputy assistant secretary responsible for embassy security. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton promised Congress her department would increase funding for security overseas, hire more diplomatic security agents, and create a new office to assist high-threat postings, according to The Wall Street Journal. How the recommendations proposed by the Accountability Review Board led by former diplomat Thomas Pickering and retired senior Pentagon official Adm. Mike Mullen are implemented is likely to remain a hot topic next year.

(Image via Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock.com)

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