1 Announce that America is back and open for diplomacy. Make a big speech to the U.N. General Assembly laying out your broad goals. This will signal that you value international institutions. Then send your personal delegate to the Middle East to lay the initial groundwork for renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks (even if they go nowhere, the effort might make moderate Arabs more cooperative on other issues); open a line to Syria (offering full ties and other goodies in exchange for splitting from Iran and ceasing support for terrorists); and deliver a message to Iran (not to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but to the real powers) offering negotiations on all disputes. These steps alone will show that the United States is once more ready to act like a serious major power.
2 Get out of Iraq. The Iraqis have done you a favor by insisting that a new Status of Forces Agreement include a timetable for withdrawal. Take the deal.
Rethink Afghanistan. The two or three brigades that we'll probably soon be redeploying to southern Afghanistan will help commanders perform certain tactical missions without relying too much on air power — i.e., without unavoidably killing civilians. But they won't be enough to "win" the war. The real threat is not the Taliban fighters in Afghanistan; it's the sanctuary and replenishing ground that they have in neighboring Pakistan — and the possibility of chaos or the rise of radical Islamists there. The only way to defeat the Taliban is to make it worth the Pakistanis' while to help.
3 Normalize relations with Russia. This may sound cold, but Russia is too important — on energy, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, peace in the Middle East, nearly everything — for our relations to get warped in a new Cold War over the integrity of South Ossetia. Moscow's aggression should not be blithely tolerated, but it's absurd to respond by, say, admitting Georgia into NATO. First, members are required to have recognized borders, which Georgia lacks. Second, do you — do any Americans— really want to go to war for Tbilisi? (This is what security alliances are all about.)
4 Cut and shift the military budget. Here's a new mantra: What's important is not how much we spend but what we buy. The Pentagon's budget is locked almost entirely in the patterns set by the Cold War struggle with Soviet communism.
Do we really need another new submarine or aircraft carrier, another wing of F-22 or F-35 "stealth" fighter planes, or a new high-tech "future combat system"?
It's time for a radical reassessment of the military budget — the first since the end of the Cold War. Put someone like Robert Gates in charge. (He has the forward vision and the universal legitimacy.)
5 Refine intelligence. Presidents respond to events, many of them unseen; therefore, they require good intelligence. More to the point, they need to know what their intelligence reports really say. The "intelligence community" consists of 16 agencies; sometimes, one or more of them file dissenting footnotes to major points of a report. By the time the report gets boiled down to "executive summaries" and passed up the chain of command, the footnotes get excised. Demand that they be put back in.
If they have implications for policy, have them debated before the National Security Council. Pay attention to the source of the dissent.
"President-elect Barack Obama" — the phrase alone does more to repair the tarnished image of America in the world than any action George W. Bush might ponder taking in his final weeks of power. • The very fact of a black president with multinational roots unhinges the terrorists' recruitment poster of a racist, parochial, Muslim-hating United States. • It revivifies America as a beacon of democracy. • But Obama will enjoy this gush of hope for six months at most. Then he'll have to earn it. A few suggestions: