The media obsession over who's in and who's out of consideration for the Obama Cabinet brings the admonition on the famous "War Room" wall of Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign to mind: "It's the Economy Stupid!" Those of us eagerly awaiting relief from the debacle called the Bush administration should avoid getting swept up the in DC parlor game of who is getting what position in the new administration and focus instead on the fundamental changes we need the Obama administration to start making. In short, "It's the Policy Stupid!"
President Obama will begin his presidency with enormous good will from the American people and great hope from the world at large. It is imperative that he seize this opportunity by quickly moving his campaign pledges into bold and decisive action despite the opposition that surely awaits him.
Step one: End the US military occupation of Iraq. Immediately begin withdrawing US combat forces within sixteen months, clearly delineating the number and role of any remaining troops to limited non-combat roles such as providing security to the US embassy and training Iraqi security forces. Even before taking office, President-elect Obama's message of change has made a security pact with Iraq much more likely by assuring Iraqis that the United States will respect their sovereignty and pull our forces out. It has weakened Iranian opposition by increasing their confidence that the US will not be occupying permanent military bases on their neighbor's soil as a staging ground for attack
Step two: Change course in Afghanistan. Responding to the Bush administration's failure in Afghanistan by initiating an escalation of US combat troops could be the next step into a quagmire that would be a catastrophe for the United States, Obama's presidency, and the region. Changing course should include support for the Afghan government's outreach to insurgent forces, including elements of the Taliban willing to negotiate an end to armed conflict; a robust diplomatic effort that reaches out to key regional nations, including Iran and Pakistan; and a serious and sustained commitment of humanitarian aid and development assistance that can bring relief and hope to the beleaguered people of Afghanistan. Continued military commitment should be limited and predicated on a clear exit strategy that is linked to this comprehensive approach.
Step three: Engage Iran. President Obama should declare that seeking regime change in Iran is no longer the policy of the U.S. and initiate diplomatic contacts with the Iranian government immediately without preconditions.
Step four: Make a just and lasting peace in the Middle East a top priority by seriously arbitrating a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and capitalizing on the common interests of states in the region to prevent an implosion of Iraq and to establish stability.
Step five: Replenish the strength of our weakened military by cutting the number of troops that are put into harms way and striking unnecessary and obsolete military weapons from the defense budget. President Obama should reject calls for an increase in military spending and combat forces. Troop levels should be set not by reacting to the demands of militarizing our foreign policy under George W. Bush, but by the requirements of a new national security strategy. Additional levels of combat troops will be necessary only if the United States intends to launch yet more counter-insurgency campaigns by invasions and military occupations. The alternative is a national security policy that buries the "Bush Doctrine," respects international law, and restores America's place in the world as a source of inspiration and hope, not outrage and fear.
None of these steps will be easy. Hawks will echo Senator McCain's attacks during the presidential campaign that President Obama will be snatching defeat from the jaws of victory by changing course in Iraq. They will clamor for more troops in Afghanistan without any semblance of an exit strategy while rejecting meaningful diplomatic engagement with key regional players like Iran. And, they will relentlessly pressure Members of Congress from both parties to continue the gravy train of wasteful defense spending on obsolete and unnecessary weapons and equipment. President Obama and Members of Congress need to demand that, from now on, defense spending will be based on the national security interests of our nation and no longer on the political self-interest of politicians and the insatiable appetite of defense contractors.
Undoing the incalculable damage done by the Bush administration will require a fundamental reassessment of how to achieve genuine national security and setting a profoundly different course for national defense and foreign policy. The election of Barack Obama opens an extraordinary opportunity for our nation and the world. The stakes are too high to squander it.