Seven Foreign Policy Priorities for Obama's Second Term

The United States requires a vision for the future. Central to that should be American leadership -- not because we're so great we deserve it, not because we want to be "No. 1," not because we crave power, but because there is no acceptable alternative.
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In his second term, President Obama will inherit -- from his first term -- a long list of national security and foreign policy challenges. If he were asking my advice (unlikely so long as pigs are grounded), I would set out seven priorities.

First, the United States requires a vision for the future. Central to that should be American leadership -- not because we're so great we deserve it, not because we want to be "No. 1," not because we crave power, but because there is no acceptable alternative.

After World War II, the British could say: "We're weary, we don't want to lead anymore, we want to stay home and build a welfare state. So we're going to pass the torch to America." But if America won't lead in the 21st century, who will?

Iran's rulers are eager for the job. Vladimir Putin would grab the reins in a Moscow minute. Maybe China, too. Do I need to explain where those roads would lead?

And it is beyond naive to believe that we can rely on the UN to function as some kind of global government. In the Security Council, both Russia and China have vetoes. The biggest block in the General Assembly is the Non-Aligned Movement which recently elected Iran as its president. The Non-Aligned Movement is largely controlled by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation whose members are un-free, undemocratic and Islamist. (If you don't know the difference between Islamic and Islamist, I'll explain in a minute.)

Second: I think it would be helpful if a new, improved Obama administration were to speak more truthfully about the most important conflict taking place in the world. The Bush administration talked about a Global War on Terrorism. But terrorism is just a weapon. You don't wage wars against weapons. World War I was not a war against U-Boats. World War II was not a war against tanks and bombers.

The Obama administration has been even less straightforward, talking about "overseas contingency operations" and "violent extremists" and sometimes a "war against al Qaeda and its affiliates" but defining that phrase too narrowly and suggesting that killing Osama bin Laden is equivalent to killing off al Qaeda. The fact is that on 9/11/12, al Qaeda defeated America in the Battle of Benghazi. We need to learn from that defeat. We can be sure our enemies will learn from what they have already proclaimed is their great victory.

President Obama should acknowledge that a war is being waged against the West and that it's being waged by Islamists -- people who believe in the supremacy of their religion over all others; people who believe, as the late Father Richard John Neuhaus phrased it, that "it is the moral obligation of all Muslims to employ whatever means necessary in order to compel the world's submission to Islam."

There are Islamist movements, Islamist regimes and Islamist ideologies (see, for example, the writings of Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb). If we are to prevail, we'll have to fight a war of ideas in addition to other types of combat.

Third, if America is not strong economically, we can't be strong in any other way. We may have different views on how America regains its economic vitality, but can we at least be wary about emulating the failing approach Europe has taken in recent years?

Fourth and related to this: The West remains dependent for its transportation fuel on dictatorships and autocracies that are hostile to us, and hostile to Western values. Reducing this dependence should be a priority. Wind power, solar power and nuclear power won't do the trick. We need fuels we can put in the tanks of our vehicles soonest.

Fifth: If the Taliban returns to power in Afghanistan, we'll be back where we were 2,000 lives and hundreds of billions of dollars ago. That should not be an acceptable outcome. In Syria, if Assad falls, it will be a body blow to Iran's rulers. If Assad holds on, however, it will be a great victory for the Jihadist regime. So it makes a huge difference how these conflicts turn out.

Sixth: We need to re-set the re-set with Russia. Two examples: Putin recently expelled the U.S. Agency for International Development, which had been advising private groups on democracy since the 1990s. In addition, Putin has cancelled the longstanding Nunn-Lugar program providing for cooperation on securing and destroying old Soviet weapons of mass destruction. His message: Russia doesn't need any help from the Americans.

Seventh and last: I would strongly recommend against making it a priority to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Arab-Israeli conflict or the Islamist-Israeli conflict. And do understand: They are all the same conflict, and linked to the global War Against the West. Israel cannot have a separate peace. Israel cannot be the first to make peace. Realistically, it's likely to be the last.

Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.

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