DAVID IGNATIUS: Obama’s challenge – Slay the dragons of today and the future

By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON – It’s telling that nearly four years into the Obama presidency, so many conversations with administration officials still begin with a litany of how bad things were under George W. Bush. To wit: The Obama team faced two foreign wars, an aggressive al-Qaida, a deep mistrust among allies, a shaken U.S. economy. They inherited a world of woe.
And now?
Obama officials recite their catechism of successes. Osama bin Laden is dead and al-Qaida is on the run; the troops are back from Iraq and gradually but inexorably coming home from Afghanistan; America is more popular overseas. The bad Bush years are over.
It’s an impressive record in many ways. But here’s a caution to White House officials: Obama won’t be running against Bush. Slaying the dragons of the past isn’t enough; it’s the new dangers and challenges that matter.
Here are three areas where Obama should work on what George H.W. Bush called the “vision thing.” These problems will top the global agenda after the 2012 election, and Obama should begin explaining how he will deal with them:
• The “global political awakening.” Zbigniew Brzezinski, the prescient former national security adviser, used this term in 2008 to describe citizen empowerment in the Internet age.
The movement is spreading rapidly. A year that began with the Arab Spring is ending with open dissent in Russia against Vladimir Putin. Time magazine chose “the protester” as its person of the year.
• A “reset” with Pakistan. Obama rightly understood that the war in Afghanistan had to be linked with stability in Pakistan, but his approach is backfiring – with a militarized Pakistan on the way to becoming the world’s first nuclear “failed state.”
When Pakistan talks as if it’s at war with America, it’s time to push the reset button. A new start should build on the most positive development in the region: The recent improvement in India-Pakistan relations, and their shared interest in averting a civil war in Afghanistan.
• A sane, comprehensive strategy for Iran. Here’s an Iran strategy that would be tough but not crazy: Sanctions that would gradually cripple Iran’s ability to export oil, so that Tehran is forced to choose between being an oil power or a nuclear power; a U.S. contingency plan to reopen the Strait of Hormuz in less than a week if Iran tries to close it, and careful preparation with allies in Europe, Asia and the Gulf so that squeezing Iran doesn’t explode an already shaky world economy.
The administration has been working on such a pragmatic Iran strategy, and the president should articulate it soon.
That’s the best rejoinder to glib calls by Newt Gingrich and other Republicans to bomb Iran.
Obama can campaign as a foreign-policy president, but only if he states his plans more clearly – not running against Bush’s record anymore, but explaining what he will do if he wins a second term.
David Ignatius’ email address is davidignatius@washpost.com. He writes for The Washington Post Writers Group.