Obama Meets the World

CAMBRIDGE – Many people will try to set President Barack Obama’s priorities, but one person is sure to have a major effect. George W. Bush has bequeathed an unenviable legacy: an economic crisis, two wars, a struggle against terrorism, and problems across the Middle East and elsewhere. If Obama fails to fight these fires successfully, they will consume his political capital, but if all he does is fight them, he will inherit Bush’s priorities. The new president must deal with the past and chart a new future at the same time.

Foremost on Obama’s agenda will be the economic crisis, where his domestic and international priorities intersect. He will need to stimulate the economy and avoid protectionist pressures at home, while also taking the lead in restructuring the global financial system. Cooperation with others will be essential. That Bush convened a G-20 meeting in November sets a useful precedent of going beyond the G-7 to include emerging economies such as China, India, and Brazil.

In second place must be America’s two current wars. Obama campaigned on a promise to withdraw American combat brigades (but not troops engaged in training and counterterrorism) from Iraq by mid-2010. Now the Bush administration and the Iraq government have signed an agreement for troop withdrawal by late 2011. These timetables’ effectiveness will depend on events on the ground, including political compromises inside Iraq and dialogue with Iraq’s neighbors, but a clear sense of direction has been established.

Afghanistan looks more difficult, given the Taliban’s reinvigoration with help from groups in Pakistan. Obama has called for additional United States and NATO troops to stabilize the situation, but too many foreign troops will only increase Afghan nationalist reactions. We cannot simply shoot our way out of the problem. Increased training of the Afghan army and police, and a political dialogue inside the country and with neighbors will be important components of any solution.