1 Rewrite the Laws of War
One of the most persistent criticisms of President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism policy is that he has not definitively broken with the troubled legacy of George W. Bush. But he could put that judgment largely to rest by pushing to modernize the laws of war.
The Geneva Conventions and other similar instruments were designed to deal with traditional armies—not groups with no ties to state sponsors or that operate in failed states. Obama should organize an international conference to establish new standards and agreed-upon interpretations for such subjects as the definition of enemy combatants, the treatment of detainees, and the rendition of suspected terrorists. Drones could also be considered—especially standards to minimize civilian casualties and to establish whether targets pose an imminent threat.
At the outset, such a conference would involve NATO countries and treaty allies in Asia. Obama wouldn’t have to guarantee unanimous agreement, but the discussion would help ensure long-term cooperation from foreign law enforcement, intelligence services, and militaries. At home, it would allow Obama to reaffirm a commitment to civil liberties in the wake of politically harmful scandals over National Security Agency spying. This is an initiative where the onetime law professor should be in his element.
2 Save Jordan from a Humanitarian Disaster
The Obama administration seems committed to a restrained approach toward the war in Syria—and its decision to send small arms to the opposition is unlikely to change the course of the conflict. But Obama could still prevent further humanitarian catastrophe and regional chaos by protecting Jordan from the fallout of the war.
Since 2011, around half a million Syrians have flooded into Jordan, placing enormous financial and societal strains on the country. The president could announce that he will not allow Bashar Al Assad to jeopardize Jordan—which is, after all, a strong U.S. ally. Washington could spearhead a fund for refugees and general economic support so that adequate housing, food, and medicine are available and so that the crisis does not harm Jordan’s already fragile economy.
If necessary, the United States could also provide military support to help Jordan create a safe zone for the refugees inside the Syrian border. This step would not be an intervention in the war, but the kind of action allies take to support each other in times of crisis. In the region, assisting Jordan with its refugee crisis would be well regarded; around the globe, a protection plan would be seen as a significant act of leadership.
3 Meet with the President of Iran
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama famously suggested that, if elected, he would meet with the president of Iran. He was right not to sit down with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but now that Iran has elected the moderate Hassan Rouhani, Obama should make that summit happen.
Obama can ignore Rouhani’s initial statements that he is not ready for direct talks and send a private letter of congratulations, offering to meet without preconditions in a neutral location like Geneva. As for the agenda, it’s too soon to resolve the overriding issue of preventing Iran from crossing the nuclear weapons threshold. But in order to advance that objective, Obama could strengthen Rouhani’s position by pressing other Western powers to propose more substantial relief from economic sanctions at the upcoming round of formal nuclear talks. The two sides could also discuss how Iran could participate in a future international peace effort for Afghanistan, since in 2002 Iran worked with the United States to establish the Karzai government after the fall of the Taliban. Of course, more than 30 years of enmity will not evaporate overnight. But when Obama suggested a summit in 2007, he was signaling that diplomacy is vital to prevent Iran’s nuclear program from becoming a nuclear crisis. Now he has a chance to prove it.
James P. Rubin will be a visiting scholar at Oxford University’s Rothermere American Institute.