"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 revives Europeans' trans-Atlantic dreams just as their own union seems to be foundering. It is bound to inspire reformers everywhere who seek to break through their own socio-political barriers. It revivifies America as a beacon of democracy—not through thumping arrogance and brimstone but, more elegantly and potently, by sheer example.
But President Obama will enjoy this gush of hope and favor for six months at most. After that, he'll have to earn it through his actions and policies. Here are a few suggestions:
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—Vice President Joe Biden or some trusted eminence like Colin Powell—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. Reappoint Dennis Ross, or someone like him, as permanent Middle East envoy (a slot shockingly unfilled for the last eight years). These steps alone will give the impression that the United States is once more ready to act like a serious major power.
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. If it turns out they were bluffing and don't really want us to go, demand dramatic, substantive progress on political unity, provincial elections, division of oil revenues, and all the other issues on which the Iraqis have yet to budge. Nobody's talking about pulling out all U.S. troops (unless, again, the Iraqis kick them out). Use the troops that remain as leverage. Bush had a decent idea when he set "benchmarks" for the Iraqi government to meet. The problem was that he didn't enforce them—he neither rewarded the Iraqis for meeting certain deadlines nor punished them for failing to hit many others. Revive the idea with sticks and carrots. The whole point of the "surge"—and of any continued U.S. military presence—was, and is, to create the conditions for achieving political objectives: a stable, self-sustaining, democratic Iraq. Set benchmarks toward that goal. If the Iraqis don't meet them, withdraw another two or three brigades; if they do meet them, keep the brigades there a little longer, if they're wanted, to help solidify the progress. The more targets the Iraqis meet, the more stable the country will become and the less they'll need us in the long run.