Congratulations, Mr President-elect, on your victory. After the longest presidential campaign in our history, you now have 77 days to prepare to govern. While foreigners might see eleven weeks as an eternity, you know only too well that it is precious little time to select your top advisers and then subject them to our cumbersome FBI and ethics screening of their backgrounds, their finances, their potential conflicts of interest, and whatever skeletons are hanging in their closets.
Then, of course, they need to learn the intricacies of their respective responsibilities, and, for many, begin the Senate confirmation process, which may take months. Time is already growing short.
The current economic turmoil will consume a significant amount of your Transition Team’s time and effort, and properly so. But in the wider world, our adversaries and even our friends are actively considering how to advance their interests as your January 20 Inauguration approaches.
You will have four full years of foreign-policy issues and problems, such as the rise of China and India, the decline of the European Union, and the role of Russia, but I suggest the following as priorities in your first Hundred Days:
You are the decider.
Although President Bush tried to make this his mantra, his Administration was plagued in its first term by incoherence in national security decision making. Crisp decisions were not made, strong differences of opinion among Cabinet Secretaries were not resolved, and policy too often oscillated between conflicting options with no consistency or direction.
Ironically, the Bush Administration’s second term erred in the opposite direction, almost eliminating differences in advice to the President until there was really only one voice in his ear at critical points. You must avoid both pitfalls, and you must make that clear immediately. You must resolve disagreements among your advisers, and not allow drift, and you must insist on discipline once you make a decision.
If anyone disagrees with this approach, you may invite them to do the honourable thing and resign, or not sign on in the first place. Iran Tehran’s ruling mullahs have no intention of affording you a “honeymoon”. They will move quickly to test your resolve both on their rapidly progressing nuclear weapons program and on their massive support for international terrorism.
Nearly six years of European diplomacy has failed to slow Iran’s nuclear program. Five UN Security Council Resolutions demanding that Iran halt uranium enrichment (and imposing risibly weak sanctions) have had essentially no effect.
Russia in particular is using Iran as the sharp tip of the spear to disrupt our policy throughout the Middle East. Moscow will watch what you do just as intently as Tehran. Any new President will be advised to engage in at least some renewed diplomatic effort. But do not be fooled. Insist on three months of intense, good-faith negotiations, and we will soon find out if Iran is serious.
If not, which I believe to be demonstrably the case, suspend negotiations quickly. Then, ratchet up efforts on the only options, unattractive though they are, that have a chance of stopping Iran from acquiring deliverable nuclear weapons: regime change or the targeted use of military force against Iran’s nuclear program.
If you wait longer, you will surely have the worst of all worlds: Iran with nuclear weapons, and an even greater threat of nuclear proliferation as other Middle Eastern states draw the appropriate conclusions from its success at thwarting our non-proliferation efforts.
We are kidding ourselves if we think North Korea will ever voluntarily give up its nuclear weapons program. Even during the campaign, as the Bush Administration was squandering our negotiating leverage, North Korea continued to try to proliferate ballistic missile technology.
As with Iran, there is essentially no chance that Pyongyang will be talked out of its nuclear weapons. Moreover, with the world in near-complete ignorance about the state of Kim Jong-il’s health or plans for regime succession, even more uncertainty surrounds the intentions of this prison camp of a country. Expecting that the long-running Six-Party Talks will “solve” the North Korean problem is a delusion.
Instead, you must deal directly with China as the highest priority in our bilateral relationship, and insist that we act together to eliminate the current regime in Pyongyang and is nuclear program, and ultimately reunite the Korean Peninsula.
China needs to understand that leaving the North with nuclear weapons is not an option, and that their inaction will have an increasingly negative impact on our bilateral relationship. Beijing alone can change North Korea, and it needs to get started.
Do not let global “public opinion” about the United States, from Albania to Zimbabwe, dissuade you from doing what you think is right for America. Your job is to defend and advance our interests and values, a task which invariably will displease our adversaries, and even many of our friends, especially those who wish we were, well, more European in our behaviour and attitudes.
What we must do, however, is more effectively advocate the policies you will be pursuing. Failure at both the political level in Washington and abroad, and at the level of the career Foreign Service, made the Bush Administration one of the most tongue-tied Presidencies in our history. We should try to shift international public opinion to support our policies, not modify our policies to try to satisfy international public opinion. The State Department will not understand this distinction. You must.
A final word
Many U.S. and foreign commentators have been quick to tell us that America is in decline, and that our role in the future will not be what it once was. They will be correct only if you fall prey to their pessimism.
And if you do, rest assured that they will shortly turn critical of “American isolationism,” just as they have been critical in recent years of “American unilateralism.” You will never satisfy them. Defend America and its friends, and the rest will take care of itself.