Washington Post asks various eminences to offer some thoughts about what Barack Obama’s top priorities ought to be. I think it’s disappointing that the answers tend to be so unresponsive to actual events in the world. My personal interests are similar to Zbigniew Brzezinski’s and I greatly admire his way of thinking about foreign policy issues. So eighteen months ago, I would have given an answer quite similar to the one he gives.
But I think it’s clear enough that the combination of a calmer situation in Iraq with the dawn of a crisis in the global financial system and the arrival of a worldwide recession has made diplomatic engagement with Iran considerably less pressing today than it was eighteen months ago. I still think the basic strategy he lays out is a good one, and something an Obama administration ought to pursue, but it’s just not the case that this is as pressing as it was a little while back.
Somewhat similarly, something I’ve been wrestling with lately is the fact that I’m not, personally, someone who’s normally taken a huge interest in environmental topics. And it’s still the case that on the domestic front there are a few topics that are closer to my heart. At the same time, there’s an objective urgency about climate where it makes a big, big, big difference whether we do something in 2009 rather than 2019 that doesn’t exist in the same ways for some other topics. There are a lot of policy areas where “things could be better” and even where quick reform would make a big difference. But responsible leadership needs to tackle topics with an eye on the extent to which they’re actually pressing emergencies rather than just festering sources of injustice.