Security priorities

Our view: There is a lot of work ahead for President-elect Obama's national security team, including recent rival Sen. Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state nominee

December 02, 2008

The members of President-elect Barack Obama's new national security team are talented, opinionated and diverse in their views.

There is Sen. Hillary Clinton, his rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, who fiercely criticized Mr. Obama for his foreign affairs naivete, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who once expressed alarm at the president-elect's setting of a deadline for Iraq withdrawal and retired Gen. James L. Jones, the former NATO commander, who frequently challenged his civilian bosses. That's all right with the man who will lead them. He knows that White House staff can "get wrapped up in group think." That was a chief flaw of President Bush's inner circle, which helped lead the U.S. into the Iraq war.

Mr. Obama welcomes vigorous debate, and after eight years of "group think," the American public should too.

With his limited foreign policy experience, Mr. Obama is sure to benefit from having strong personalities and strong opinions around him. Facing an array of tough problems - including war, international recession, genocide and global warming - there is clearly a need to think beyond a one-dimensional obsession with terrorism when framing U.S. foreign policy. Here are five corners of the world that deserve immediate attention from Mr. Obama's national security team:

Iraq: The Obama administration should prepare a strategy for swift withdrawal of most U.S. troops from combat in Iraq by mid-2010. Training forces should leave before the Dec. 31, 2011 deadline set in a new agreement with the Iraqi government. At the same time, American diplomats should work aggressively to mediate political and economic differences among the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, the three principal power groups in the nation. And if the Iraqis want a small contingent of military advisers on hand, some accommodation should be made.

Afghanistan: Troop reductions in Iraq should mean more U.S. forces here, but the administration needs to firm up its strategy for fighting a resurgent Taliban and al-Qaida forces. The effort should be as much economic as military. Serious infrastructure and business investments are needed to demonstrate the benefits of democracy and persuade tribal leaders to support the central government.

India-Pakistan: The Obama team's anti-terrorism strategy should be centered on Pakistan. That would defuse tensions with India and improve the work of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The Pakistani government should receive continued support to avoid economic collapse, but that aid should be tied to improved military cooperation and assistance to uproot al-Qaida from the country's northeast tribal areas.

Israel-Palestine: Elections in Israel and the Palestinian territories early next year will influence how the Obama administration approaches one of the most intractable international problems of the past half-century. But there are at least two issues related to any peace agreement that would benefit from a fresh perspective and immediate planning from the Obama team. Israeli settlement expansion should be stopped and the areas adjacent to Jerusalem reimagined to account for a handful of settlements that have become exurbs of Jerusalem. A compensation package for Palestinian refugees should be drafted with an economic development initiative that would help relocate them from rundown camps in nearby countries and provide them with new housing.

Iran: The ruling clerics in Tehran must be persuaded to halt the country's nuclear development program. What that will take is anyone's guess, since Iran rejected the last incentive package offered with support from the Bush administration. It's time for face-to-face diplomacy with the Iranians, but Tehran should understand that it's in its interest to show some measure of goodwill and serious intentions to end the decades-long standoff. Any move toward Tehran by the U.S. administration should keep Russia in the loop and preferably as an ally.

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