Charles Dickens called Washington a “city of magnificent intentions.” When Barack Obama takes over on January 20th as the 44th President of the United States, he will need to translate his own lofty ideas into realities. What makes the challenge bigger for him is that he may also be carrying another title: the first globally-elected President of the United States. Unlike any other presidential election in US history, his nomination was favored by denizens of over 90 countries worldwide. All his supporters, here and abroad, expect him to transform the image and reality of the United States, in short order. While this is a daunting task, it also offers him a grand opportunity to make some bold decisions and set the United States and its partners on a fresh path, where an engaged and principled US foreign policy based on humanity and justice would be the rule.
Expectations are high and no where more than in the Muslim World that has seen the past decade marked by a threatened Clash of Civilizations between it and the West. That is also where the most dangerous shoals of foreign policy exist: Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan, and South Asia, particularly Pakistan, which may be his greatest nightmare.
President Obama will not have much time to tackle each and all of these regions of unrest before he runs out of the hope and goodwill that will support him in his early days in office. The economic detritus of the Bush Administration has made the transition complex and difficult. But certain principles that are already reflected in some of his public statements may help point to likely actions that will allow him to make some historic leaps and take his supporters and doubters both with him.
Here are some things he could in his first 100 days:
- Restore faith in the U.S. justice system by shutting down secret jails in Bagram, Guantanamo, and all torture and rendition practices as well as sites in other countries;
- Recognize that the Gaza conflict has two sides and that the U.S. needs to engage with both to stop the violence against innocent civilians and children; bring Arab support to bear on stopping Hamas’ attacks into Israel and use the U.S.’s own leverage aid and arms-supply over Israel to stop its invasion of Gaza so the search for a longer-term peace may resume;
- Announce that the US will respect the results of overseas elections that are free and fair regardless of which party comes to power;
- Open a dialog with Iran to resolve issues and thus help eliminate Iranian involvement in Iraq, Lebanon, and Gaza, while opening up the path to Iranian help in rebuilding Afghanistan and expanding its gas pipeline into Pakistan and India; Iran is the key to many locked doors in the greater Middle East and to the peaceful US exit from Iraq;
- Engage and help the people of Pakistan directly to wrest control back from the militants that threaten the stability of that key country in South Asia and thus restore peace and stability to Afghanistan as well; do not favor any single party or person for short-term US gains;
- Help India and Pakistan back to the peace table by opening up their borders to trade and people; draw the Diaspora Pakistani and Indian community into this process for cross-border joint investments that would allow both rival nations to benefit from trade and cultural exchanges and remove Kashmir as a cause of conflict over time; and
- Let the Muslim World understand loud and clear that the United States has no designs against it and that it will practice what it preaches by not supporting dictators and autocrats against the freedom-seeking people of the Muslim World.
President Obama can make this statement more effective by choosing to deliver his major foreign policy speech abroad, preferably in the Muslim World…then see the wave of support carry him over the obstacles to these Grand Objectives.
Where would be a good venue for this event? How about the Wagah border crossing between India and Pakistan, so both Indian and Pakistani crowds can see and hear him? And let those metal gates that are shut by goose-stepping soldiers every evening remain open forever after that as a symbol of good neighborhood and out of respect for a brave new U.S. president who is unafraid to tackle the hardest tasks first.
This piece also appeared on The Huffington Post and on the Atlantic Council website www.acus.org, where the author is now Director, South Asia Center.