It's telling that nearly three 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 nation has turned the corner. The bad Bush years are over.
It's an impressive record in many ways, and foreign policy could actually be President Obama's strong suit as he campaigns next year. 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.
On the eve of a presidential election year, the administration's foreign policy is long on self-congratulation about the past and short on strategic clarity toward the future. Rather than measuring itself against its predecessor, this White House should be looking toward 2012 and beyond: How would Obama shape the world in a second term? What's the strategic vision that animates his policies?
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.
But as with any revolution, it's uncertain whether these uprisings will produce greater openness and freedom, or mob rule followed by a new wave of authoritarianism. One lesson from American history is that successful revolutions must be consolidated by a strong constitution and bill of rights that protect individuals and minorities. I hope Obama will make this a theme of 2012.
*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." A Pakistani source shared the chilling text of a Nov. 30 command communique from Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the army chief, to his troops. It treated the Nov. 26 border incident that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers as a deliberate act of U.S. aggression and warned: "We will not let the aggressors walk away easily."
*A sane, comprehensive strategy for Iran. Republican candidates have been making reckless threats of military action against Tehran. To counter them, Obama needs a clear alternative approach to deterring Iran's nuclear program.
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.
Obama can campaign as a foreign policy president, but only if he states his plans more clearly -- not running against Bush's record any more, but explaining what he will do if he wins a second term.