5. The Middle East is a choice between root canals or migraines. Pick your poison.
No region of the world is going to be more dangerous for the United States than the Middle East. Challenges abound -- but at the moment there don't appear to be a great many opportunities. Disengagement, sadly, is not an option.
Again, think transaction, not transformation. On Iran, explore the hell out of diplomacy before you seriously consider military action -- let alone war. Getting out of these conflicts is always more difficult than it seems, and the risk-to-reward ratio on Iran is inherently skewed toward the risk end. Once a nation acquires the knowledge and capacity to construct a nuclear weapon, it can't just be bombed out of its collective consciousness. Military actions will at best delay, not prevent, Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Unless you can change the mullahcracy in Tehran, your best bet would be an outcome that would keep Iran years away from actually making a nuclear weapon. Given the depth of animosity and mistrust between the United States and Iran over the last half-century, the odds of a grand bargain are pretty low.
But here's how to give it your best shot: Start with an interim arrangement that deals with the issue of enrichment, and forestalls Iran from acquiring enough highly enriched uranium to construct a nuke. To get such a deal, by the way, you can't just come to the party with sticks. Carrots will be required too -- not only some sanctions relief on the enrichment question, but developing Iran's enrichment capacity on the civilian side. None of this may work -- but a good-faith, sustained effort is critical to your credibility and to any follow-on military attack.
On Israeli-Palestinian peace, think interim agreements and managing the conflict. Barring some profound change in the politics of Israel or Palestine, no conflict-ending solution that addresses borders, Jerusalem, refugees and security is likely.
Also, prepare to deal with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for some time to come. If you're looking to get even with him for stiffing you on settlements, sit quietly until the urge passes. Israeli elections in January will likely return Bibi to power, and if his coalition expands it will be for the purpose of stability and maybe war with Iran -- not for bold moves toward the Palestinians.
Let's face it: You don't have much credibility with Netanyahu. If you want any progress, you're going to have to figure out a way to create a relationship with him. In any event, think small for now. Do what you can to keep the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty afloat. Push international donors to keep the Palestinian Authority in the black. Press hard on keeping Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation up and running. Push the Israelis to end restrictions on movement and economy opportunities for Palestinians. And, if there's a way to encourage quiet discussion on the least contentious final-status issues like territory and security, try that too.
If you truly can't help yourself and need to lay out a U.S. plan on all of the big issues, go ahead. Chances are they'll still be out there when your successor takes the inaugural oath. But don't delude yourself with visions of being the man to solve this thing once and for all.
On Syria, don't be lulled into believing that some notional post-election flexibility is going to expand your options there. As long as the rebels are so inchoate, the regime so militarily powerful, and the Russians so supportive of President Bashar al-Assad, the chances for dramatic change are pretty low.
That doesn't mean you should be idle on the Syrian front. Do what you can to ease the humanitarian and refugee crisis. Support Jordan, continue to work with the Turks, and support efforts to encourage a credible Syrian opposition. But be wary of a more proactive policy on the military side, particularly when it comes to providing sophisticated weaponry to a divided rebel movement whose interests may not necessarily be yours and which is acquiring its own record of war crimes.
6. Fix America's house even as you persist in trying to fix others.
Here's the bad news: Your credibility will begin to diminish the first day after your inauguration, and your status as a lame duck will grow ever closer as 2016 nears.
It's not that you can't chew gum and walk at the same time. The United States has to be involved in the rest of the world even while its domestic house is in a state of disarray. The major priority, though, must be on fixing our broken house and addressing the Five Deadly D's that sap American strength: debt, deficit, dysfunctional politics, decaying infrastructure, and dependence on hydrocarbons. If you bet on risky adventures abroad and lose, your credibility and political stock will fall when, in fact, it's badly needed to deal with pressing domestic matters, particularly the economy.
Governing is about choosing. The best thing you can do both for America and its position in the world is to address the sources of domestic weakness. If you succeed on that front, you will be strengthening the foundation on which our foreign policy rests. And in the process, who knows? You might actually become what you aspire to be -- a truly consequential American president.