Barack Obama has captured both the White House and much of the world's imagination with his soaring rhetoric and eloquent promise to re-establish the United States as a shining beacon of hope in a world rife with despair and conflict.
The president-elect now faces the daunting challenges of governing a declining superpower crippled by a financial crisis while fighting dirty wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the never-ending war on terror.
Having raised the expectations of a world weary of President George W. Bush's jingoistic unilateralism, the first African-American president of the United States must now formulate a constructive foreign policy that protects the strategic interests of the U. S. while stressing diplomacy over confrontation.
However, if Obama fails to live up to his election night promise to support those in the world who seek to live in peace and security, his international credibility will be irreparably damaged and America's soft power will not rebound from the depths of the Bush administration.
Soft power, a term coined by Harvard University professor Joe Nye, former assistant secretary of defence in the Clinton administration, is defined as the capacity of a country to influence others through the attractiveness of its values, principles and conduct.
Obama clearly understands the importance of soft power, pledging in his victory speech to restore America's greatness by demonstrating to the world the "enduring power of our ideals." He should start by reaffirming his campaign pledge to stand firm against genocide and ethnic cleansing. And the most logical place to take that stand is in U. S.-occupied Iraq, where Assyrians - an ancient Christian people indigenous to northern Iraq -are the victims of a jihadist campaign of ethnic cleansing.
The U. S. must accept some blame for this crisis. By deposing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the U. S. unwittingly unleashed sectarian forces that are bent on destroying religious pluralism in Iraq.
"The 'Leave or Die' message regularly delivered to the Assyrians of Iraq by the [radical] Muslims is a daily reminder of the instability the U. S. has created for that Christian nation," says Assyrian-American activist and author Rosie Malek-Yonan.
Malek-Yonan isn't exaggerating the brutality that her people must endure. In a 2007 report by the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Most Rev. Thomas Wenski, chairman of the committee on international policy, confirms that "Christians continue to suffer a rash of killings, hostage-takings for the purpose of extortion, destruction of churches and adjacent properties, and specific threats against Christian communities."
Last month's jihadist terror attacks in Mosul, which killed scores of Iraqi Christians and drove thousands more from that northern city, demonstrated yet again that the U. S. isn't doing enough to protect Christians there.
Providing for the security of Christians and other religious minorities in occupied Iraq is the responsibility of the U. S. under international law. Meeting that obligation ought to be a top foreign policy priority for the incoming Obama administration.
Nina Sheam - a Washington based international human rights lawyer and a member of the U. S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent organization that advises the U. S. government on matters of global religious freedom - alleged in December 2007 that certain ministries in the Iraqi government have been infiltrated by extremists who are "working in collusion with militants outside the government to chase out the Christians, to rid the country of Christians."
In his latest book, The War Within, celebrated American journalist Bob Woodward levels similar charges against the government of Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, noting that a U. S. official concluded in 2006 that "the new prime minister was protecting Shia militias engaged in murders and torture of Sunnis."
The Christian minority isn't safe in Iraq, which is why the Assyrian diaspora is calling for the establishment of an autonomous Assyrian enclave in northern Iraq. Such a province would be modelled on the Kurdish Regional Administrative Government established by a U. S.-led coalition after the First Gulf War in response to Saddam's ethnic cleansing of Kurdish villages.
To better understand the current Iraqi situation, Obama should read Michael Ignatieff's still-topical 1993 book Blood and Belonging. By establishing Iraqi Kurdistan, writes Ignatieff, the international community endorsed the notion that the protection of human rights takes precedence over the observance of the principle of national sovereignty.
"If Kurdistan works," concludes Ignatieff, "other nations that believe they can abuse indigenous minorities with impunity may see such enclaves hacked out of their territory."
One of the first acts of the Obama administration should be to carve out a small homeland for the Assyrians on the Nineveh Plain in the north of Iraq, the traditional lands of that once-mighty nation. Doing so would, according to Malek-Yonan, save her people from "complete obliteration" and encourage refugees to return to their ancestral homelands.
The Obama presidency promises to be a hopeful chapter in world history. However, just as former president Bill Clinton's inaction in the face of the Rwandan genocide of 1994 is a bloody stain on his legacy, Obama will have the blood of the Assyrians on his hands if he doesn't prevent their looming annihilation in Iraq.
By Geoffrey P.Johnston