Editor's note: Newt Gingrich is the new co-host of CNN's "Crossfire," which makes its debut on Monday, September 9.
(CNN) -- President Barack Obama did the right thing in going to Congress for a debate and a vote on a proposed national security action.
He could have followed precedent set by presidents of both parties and launched missiles under his powers as commander in chief. In an America tired by 12 years of continuous warfare (the longest in our history), however, it was wise to engage the American people through their elected representatives in the Congress.
Unfortunately the president picked the wrong topic on which to have a national debate. Launching a few missiles at Syria is a tactical action that will not change history. Obama has already pledged that he is seeking a limited engagement and is not trying to replace the dictatorship of President Bashar al-Assad.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, is already redrafting the president's proposed language to make the resolution even more restrictive and even more tactical and of even less meaning.
The most powerful nation in the world does not need a three- or four-week debate about a limited, symbolic, tactical use of power.
What we do need are three debates about very large strategic challenges.
Each of these challenges is massively bigger and vastly more important to our survival than the symbolic Syrian attack:
First, we need a national debate about stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons. We did nothing decisive for seven years under President George W. Bush even after he described Iran as part of the axis of evil (along with Saddam Hussein's Iraq and the North Korean dictatorship). In the first five years of Obama's administration, we have continued to do nothing decisive. Meanwhile, day by day the Iranian dictatorship works at acquiring nuclear weapons. This is a vastly greater threat than al-Assad's Syria.
Second, the threat of radical Islamism continues to spread. From Benghazi in Libya to the opposition to al-Assad in Syria to the unrest in Egypt, there is overwhelming evidence the death of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden did nothing to defeat radical Islamists. There are more of them today than ever and more coming from Western Europe and America to join the fight in Syria.
When Chechen Muslim terrorists set off a bomb in Boston, there is clear evidence that the war against radical Islamists is going to be bigger and harder than anything for which we have prepared. This is a vastly more important topic then a brief missile assault on al-Assad.
Third, the budgetary drawdowns in the American military are rapidly creating a generation of vulnerabilities unlike anything we have seen since Pearl Harbor in 1941. For 72 years, we have lived in a world of massive American power. The decline of the Navy, the gradual obsolescence of the Air Force, the shrinking of the Army and Marine Corps, and the emergence of new technologies are all combining to create a national security challenge of historic proportions.
Reforming the Pentagon procurement system and adequately sizing and funding American defense forces is a debate topic vastly more important to our survival and safety than a mere skirmish in the Mediterranean against Syria.
Both parties in Washington are unprepared for the three debates that matter. Political leaders can now immerse themselves in a debate about a minor action with minimal risk and feel useful.
Sometimes it feels as though the national leadership seeks trivia to stay busy so it doesn't have to face the really big issues.
Congress should vote no on a meaningless public relations use of military force against al-Assad and then focus on the three national security debates that really matter.
But that would mean facing up to the deeper realities threatening us. And that might be truly frightening.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Newt Gingrich.