President Barack Obama is now in a strong position to gain some yards for the United States in foreign policy.
Until Tuesday he operated under two major constraints. The first was that nobody wanted to cut a deal with a president who might have been out of office in January. President Bill Clinton tried to pursue what turned out to be some of his more perishable deal-making in the Middle East in 2000, the last year of his term. Mr. Obama is now going to be around for the next four years, long enough to start and sustain serious policy enterprises.
The second constraint is that the secretaries of state and defense and the national security adviser basically carry out the foreign policies of the president, and the personal aspects of diplomacy, in particular, depend to an important degree on the people occupying those key positions. Little is more durable in such matters than agreements arrived at in small meetings, sealed with a handshake or a hug.
Top U.S. leaders in foreign policy likely to leave at the start of the second Obama administration include Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and possibly National Security Adviser Thomas E. Donilon. Not to mention the sudden departure of CIA Director David H. Petraeus.
Unless Mr. Obama wants to take on all these jobs himself, an extremely unlikely option given the domestic problems he faces even before he pardons the Thanksgiving turkey, he will have to wait until he fills at least some of these key slots before he can launch second-term foreign policy initiatives.
There is plenty to do now that pre-election constraints have been removed.
First of all, he won big and he is now free of the political threat that Republicans always pose to Democrats in the field of national security -- the charge that they are "soft on defense." He is free of the political threat that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posed in courting the Republican vote and supporting Mitt Romney -- that the American Jewish vote would go against him. Jewish-Americans voted 70 percent for Mr. Obama, in keeping with their custom of voting for Democrats.
He doesn't have to worry now that Republicans will exaggerate the economic, political and military threat that China presents and turn it into votes against him. Remember the "Who lost China?" furor employed by Republicans in the 1950s to go after President Harry Truman and the Democrats? Mr. Obama can now employ the "flexibility" toward Russia that Republicans tried to use against him and improve relations with the bear, particularly when it comes to nuclear disarmament.
On a critical domestic as well as foreign issue -- immigration -- the president is now free to try to update policy, in the process improving always-sensitive U.S. relations with Latin American countries, starting with Mexico. The gain he will receive on the domestic political front, already demonstrated in the percentage of Hispanic-Americans who voted Democratic, will make pursuit of immigration reform an attractive proposition that the Republicans could try to block only at their peril.
So how should he begin?
He first should fill those key national security slots as soon as possible with the best people he can find, in either party, so he can get moving with important foreign policy initiatives. Then he must grapple with the most important issues. They are:
1) Accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The level now stands at 68,000. Most are supposed to be out by 2014, and it is not clear what leaving 10,000 behind would accomplish. Mr. Obama should take all of them out in 2013.
Iraq seems to be doing about as well as could have been expected after all U.S. troops were withdrawn last year. Continued satellite and drone surveillance can ensure against al-Qaida or some other party organizing another 9/11 against the United States from Afghanistan in the future.
Advancing the withdrawal from Afghanistan also would save money, and there will be military cuts whatever happens with the fiscal-cliff negotiations now under way.
2) Relaunch a peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians with tight deadlines and a firm promise to both that aid will be cut off incrementally and definitively if they don't play ball. They should be encouraged to talk to each other realistically with the two-state goal firmly in mind -- a secure Israel next to an independent Palestine. The Middle East is a new field of play in the wake of the Arab Spring.
3) Mr. Obama and his new national security team will need to get to know quickly the new Chinese leadership now being installed at the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. This is not simply to address the many issues between the two countries -- U.S. debt to China, Chinese monetary policy and potential friction as the U.S. "pivots" toward Asia -- it also would ensure that the phone could be picked up effectively in Beijing and Washington if anything looks to be getting out of hand.
4) Finally, for now, Mr. Obama needs to push the U.S. Senate hard to ratify the long-moldering Law of the Sea treaty. The far north is melting, commercial opportunities beckon and America remains out of the game due to the Senate's backward approach to this key international agreement.
It's time to get rolling.
Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1976).