PRESIDENT OBAMA’S SECOND TERM

US FOREIGN POLICY CONUNDRUMS

Canberra, 22 November 2012

 
Introduction

Despite a number of doomsayers predicting, even when the results were very clear, that President Obama would not win a second term, he has romped home with a clear majority in the Electoral College. However, as the President himself made very clear in his post-election speech, he is acutely aware of the fact that nearly half the nation did not vote for him. His re-election was primarily the result of the slight improvement in job creation and his deft handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Andy that had brought about devastation in a scale so far not witnessed in the United States (US). The American people opted to give the incumbent another four years in the hope that the excruciatingly slow turn-around in both the economy and employment would continue under the same leadership rather than change horses mid-stream for an unknown leadership and hope for the best. The fundamental lesson that the rest of the world should take away from this is that it is best for a nation to elect the ‘right’ person in a contextual manner irrespective of socio-economic, racial or religious considerations, especially when the nation is beset with large challenges. In other words, the broader interest of the nation must be placed as the first and foremost priority. In this election, the American people have clearly demonstrated their own maturity as well as the hard foundations of its democratic process.

Foreign Policy

The actual application of a nation’s foreign policy is largely hidden from the public with almost 90 per cent never being seen or even acknowledged openly. In fact each and every foreign policy or diplomatic success, of any nation, is the result of untold hours of relentless leg-work by invisible junior officers in not so flashy places—and this is what keeps a nation’s interests secure and articulated in the comity of nations. The US is no exception. The primary goal of the US foreign policy is to ensure that it remains the predominant power in a fast changing global scenario. To achieve this objective, its foreign policy initiatives have always been focused on preventing any one power from monopolising the material and energy resources of Eurasia. Historically, the braking up of the Sino-Soviet relationship, which would have been inimical to achieving this objective, through extreme diplomatic initiatives is a classic example of the success of this policy. In more recent times, the resurgence of a closer Sino-Russian relationship and the possibility of a clear power sharing understanding between them is a cause for concern for the US. It has been opined that the US will pacify Russia to avoid there being a collaboration between Russia and China to oppose any US initiative, even if this means making a sort of sacrificial offering of one of the US’s newfound allies in Eastern Europe.

Following from this primary concern is the recently announced ‘pivot’ to the Asia-Pacific (that is now being termed a much more benign ‘rebalance’) in order adapt to the greater global geostrategic rebalancing taking place with the shift of the locus of power to the Asia-Pacific. Power is relative. Today, and well into the future, the US will continue to have international primacy even in a fast evolving multipolar world for two reasons. First, the only single nation that could have contested this primacy, China, and the only group of nations that could have done so in a combined manner, the European Union, both have enough challenges of their own that dwarf the troubles that the US currently faces. Second, there is a gradual shift in the international energy strategy away from the Middle East and towards other areas with sufficient energy reserves. It is predicted that by 2025 the US would have overtaken Saudi Arabia as the largest producer of oil. This places the US in ‘pole position’ to take advantage of these developments. Essentially, the US continues to be the predominant nation in the world almost by default because its own challenges are relatively less difficult to overcome than those of its potential competitors. However, the rebalance towards Asia-Pacific is critical to maintaining this position. 

President Obama, perhaps more than anyone else, is aware of this situation and can be expected to do everything possible to cement the primacy that his nation currently enjoys, despite the debacles of both the Iraq and Afghanistan interventions. This is obvious from his ‘off-the-air’ comments made to the then Russian President, Medvedev, that after the elections he would have ‘more flexibility’ and ‘room to manoeuvre’. However, there are two factors that might adversely affect his foreign policy initiatives. First, is that the democrats are traditionally seen as weak on foreign policy and the perception that second term Presidents are ‘lame duck’ ones. Even if both these are wrong perceptions, in combination they create unwanted baggage that President Obama will have to expend energy and resources to dispel. On the positive side, he is already a Nobel Laureate and does not have the binding strings of a first term President and could take bold steps, if he is so inclined. Second is that the global political order that has been in place for the past three decades or so is showing signs of disintegration and is bound to fall apart, sooner rather than later. The issue, especially for the predominant power is that it is powerless to influence the evolution of the new global political order. Like any other nation it will also have to play the wait and watch game and adapt and adjust its own foreign policy and power projection initiatives to best suit the evolving scenario. Viewed from any perspective, it is certain that this is not a situation that the President of the most powerful nation in the world would want to content with.

President Obama’s foreign policy initiatives, in order of priority (according to this author) would be the Asia-Pacific pivot and relationship with China (the term pivot, although now dropped by the US, sounds so much more positive and purposeful), followed by the Afghanistan-Pakistan challenge, and then the Middle East imbroglio.

The Asia-Pacific Pivot

The focus on Asia-Pacific started off as a reiteration of the importance of the region in the last year of the first Obama administration and thereafter took a life of its own, with the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton openly talking about the Indo-Pacific in her meeting with Australian ministers earlier this month. It therefore becomes obvious that the pivot is not merely towards the Pacific, but also encompasses the Indian Ocean region. Australia straddles the vibrant trade and energy routes between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific and since the nations of this region are now, in a combined manner, the global economic engine the importance of the traditional US-Australia alliance increases significantly. The tide is gradually, but inevitably, shifting towards Asia and the US will now leverage off its Pacific Ocean face and decrease the concentration on the Atlantic sphere—it suits them best to do so. However, other than for the rhetoric and grand-standing speeches, very little has materially changed in the US stance in the region till now. Further, it is also possible that economic realities might stop any real initiatives in this direction, keeping the concept of the pivot just what it is—a desirable but unachievable concept.

The recent troop movements to Guam and rotations into Darwin in northern Australia have been touted by some analysts as clear indications of US commitment to the region. However, when viewed in the larger context, these movements can be appreciated as redeployments of troops already positioned in Okinawa, the objective in all probabilities being to move them outside the Chinese missile envelope and at the same time to appease Japanese sensibilities. However, what fundamentally changes when this pivot finally eventuates are two aspects—one, Japan and South Korea now effectively become front-line states and India and Australia become critical components for the rebalancing to work and for the success of a China containment strategy that has so far not been articulated in public as a policy. As much as senior US officials deny that any China containment strategy is being pursued, it is clear that the pivot to the Indo-Pacific is meant to encircle the Chinese mainland through a system that is both physical and virtual so that there is no substantial challenge to the seaborne primacy of the US. In the employment of this strategy, the time tested US-Japanese and US-Australia alliances and the emerging, but not yet robust, friendship with India are crucial factors. Further, the US has initiated an aggressive multilateral engagement with regional institutions to improve its track record of the past decades, which was one of benign neglect.

The evolving US-China relations are at the centre stage of this pivot. Needless to say, China is very suspicious of US intentions and has repeatedly questioned the rebalance policy, despite Hillary Clinton’s statement that the Indo-Pacific is large enough to accommodate all the major players. China’s overtures in creating a ‘string of peals’ around the Indian sub-continent is also not lost on the other nations of the region, although in this instance China states that they have no ulterior motive in pursuing this strategy. This is a hypocritical stance at best. On the other hand, even in his second term, President Obama is highly unlikely to be confrontational with China, especially when trying to resolve the on-going trade and financial disputes. He is more likely to pursue a moderate approach to their resolution or at least containment. Such an approach could bring about a greater amount of stability in the Sino-US bilateral relations.

There is one factor that inhibits clarity in the US policy towards China—the fundamental thinking in policy formulation is still clouded by the Cold War confrontations with the erstwhile Soviet Union and fixated on initiating similar actions to isolate China. The paradigms have changed and this approach may not be the right course of action to adopt. However, the US has actively revived the trilateral US-Japan-India cooperation effort and is in the process of reinstituting the five nation military cooperation initiatives by involving Singapore and Australia into the mix. The geographic locations of these nations make China nervous about US intentions and calculate an ulterior motive that might be far more than what is being openly declared by the US policy-makers. This is a situation that is not conducive to stability and building mutual confidence.

At least for the moment, the US seems to be embarking on a unilateral attempt to arrest the economic rise and military expansion of China, which unfortunately cannot be achieved without direct confrontation. However, both the nations are not ready for such an eventuality. The Indo-Pacific is in the middle of a power transition, with no clear winners or even front-runners at the moment. The only tangible trends are the obvious rise of China, its developmental initiatives and the erratic, but visible, progress of India. Some analysts have compared this situation to the time of global economic crisis between the two World Wars, when Britain was unable to lead and the US unwilling to assume the leadership role. It is being discussed that at the current moment, in a similar manner the US is unable to lead and China is not ready to lead, and even if it was, it is not an acceptable leader for the rest of the region and the world. This is a situation tailor-made to lead directly to chaotic international relations and the extremely convoluted machinations of a multipolar world. If there is one fact that history repeatedly highlights, it is that when global leadership is contested, it invariably leads to conflict. Perhaps the US will formulate an enlightened way forward where the emerging powers of the Indo-Pacific region will be prompted to take control of the responsibility for regional stability in an equal shared role with the US. The challenge will be for both the US and for the nations of the region to accept this sharing of security responsibility. A shambling, chaotic situation, whether led by the US or China, is neither desirable nor conducive to the stability necessary for economic growth and peaceful coexistence, although that is where the environment seems to be heading.                 

Afghanistan-Pakistan Challenge

The US invaded Afghanistan with a clear objective, but over the years the objective and milestones to achieve it have shifted so many times that the term ‘mission creep’ has assumed a far broader meaning than it ever did in any other circumstances. However, President Obama has decided on and set a timeframe for troop withdrawal and will stick to it irrespective of the ground reality in Afghanistan. In a peculiar sense, the troop withdrawal, scheduled for 2014, itself seems to have become the desired end-state in the minds of the American public. In reality, this is only the short term goal and the culmination of an election promise. The long term goal, even if it has not been articulated as such, is the stability of Afghanistan and its further growth—perhaps an utopian dream, considering the evolving situation there. The fact is that Afghanistan is no more a high priority as a foreign involvement for the US, even though personnel losses in the decade of war have been fairly high. The war, and even the stabilisation goal, do not have domestic support of the calibre that would force a government to pursue victory, nor does it evoke any zealous anti-war protests—the US public is, sadly, apathetic to the final result of the war in Afghanistan. Ensuring the stability of Afghanistan is unfortunately not on the priority list of the US administration.

The primary strategic challenge that the US-led (nominally NATO-led) forces face in Afghanistan is the subversive activities of the Pakistan Army. Further, because of the extremely porous and undefined border between Afghanistan and Pakistan in the tribal areas, the term Af-Pak is very commonly used to indicate the area where the actual fighting is taking place. The sensitivities and long term objectives of the Pakistan Army are almost completely disconnected from US policy imperatives and yet they are, at least superficially, declared allies in the conflict. The overarching consideration of the Pakistan Army is to ensure that they are in control of Afghanistan when the Western forces withdraw, even if this means ruling by proxy in a fashion similar to the situation when the Taliban ruled the nation prior to 2003. Pakistan’s ambition is kept alive by the fact that the US has not been able to articulate an acceptable vision for the future of the Af-Pak region, when the withdrawal takes place.

The US understands that India has to play a role if stability of some sort, however precarious, has to be achieved, which is fundamental to the future of Afghanistan. However, Pakistan totally opposes a role for India in Afghanistan. Further, India is reluctant to assume any sort of responsibility for the security of the region, which will be adversely affected if Afghanistan continues to remain in a state of instability. The US persuasions have so far not altered the status quo in Indian thinking. In addition, President Karzai completes his second term in office soon and is not eligible for re-election, thereby bringing in a greater feeling of uncertainty associated with a new and unproven President. The entire situation is very fragile and the likelihood of a full-fledged collapse of the nation on the withdrawal of Western forces cannot be entirely ruled out. Will this be allowed to happen; will President Obama want the collapse of Afghanistan to be viewed as his legacy; or will the US try to deal with the Taliban to create a level of stability, however ugly such an act may seem; are all questions that do not have any answers at the moment. In the absence of any visible and declared US policy beyond troop withdrawal it is difficult to guess the outcome.

US-Pakistan relationship in the past few years has been framed by the projected troop withdrawal of 2014 and the vicious anti-US riots that break out sporadically in Pakistan in protest against the drone-strikes in the tribal areas. The US has clear evidence of Pakistan’s duplicity throughout the past decade of conflict as evidenced by statements from the highest levels of US government and military. It is generally accepted that there is an unholy nexus between the Pakistani ISI and the Haqqani network, which has been declared a terrorist organisation by the US. The US is, at least for the moment, positioned between Scylla and Charybdis—they have no option but to engage with Pakistan and elicit some cooperation from the recalcitrant Pakistan Army. In fact, such engagement could itself be used as a bargaining tool to force at least limited cooperation in dealing with the mess in Afghanistan. However, considering the domestic political situation in Pakistan it is doubtful whether the nation will be in any shape to provide meaningful assistance in the transition. It may happen that the US will consciously look the other way when Pakistan and/or its proxy elements move back in control of Afghanistan because it will be inconvenient to take a tough stand against Pakistan at the time of troop draw-down. In the medium to long term this would be inviting catastrophic trouble and will create an immediate destabilising effect in the South Asian region. Other than the embroiled state of Afghanistan, the fundamental challenge remains the fact that Pakistan is itself in a volatile state and the fear of its nuclear arsenal falling into the hands of fundamentalist elements if very real, irrespective of the protestations of both the civilian and military leadership to the contrary. The US needs to constantly keep a vigilant watch for any signs of deterioration in the security environment surrounding the safety of the nuclear warheads—a very tall order in the prevailing circumstances.

The Middle East Imbroglio

President Obama’s vision of stabilising the Middle East and ushering in responsible democratic governments following the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ did not materialise in his first term. The reasons are many, but primarily because of his perceived inability to bring the Israel-Palestine peace process back on track, thereby moving towards a long term solution to the vexed issue. This needs further elaboration. In the eyes of the Muslim world, the US, and by extension its President, has been, and continues to be, indifferent to the plight of the Palestinians and blindly supports Israel’s position. In fact there is an underlying belief that President Obama’s approach to the crisis resolution is dictated by the pro-Israeli lobby in Washington, which in the eyes of the Palestinians is the reason for the two-state solution not being pursued and Israel being permitted to construct more settlements in what is presumed to be legitimate Palestine land.

President Obama’s approach to addressing the challenges of the Middle East will be outlined by four factors—the international energy security requirements, US relations with friendly but autocratic rulers, the security status of Israel, and US-Iran relationship. The US is also closely monitoring the progress of the Arab Spring in nations where autocratic regimes have been removed and believe that the unfolding events do not align with their perception of what the way forward should have been. All the ‘Arab Spring’ nations have Islamic leanings with the more fundamentalist groups gathering more support than the moderate ones; a visible splintering of the social façade of these countries instead of a transition to democracy and stability; and focused targeting of religious minorities that go completely against the concept of secular liberalism. The US, and for that matter all the nations of the world, have derived two lessons from the Arab Spring: one, that intervention to topple a dictator is no guarantee for the installation of a better, more representative regime, in fact in a number of cases, the opposite could be true; and two, intervention to protect human rights need not be universally applauded, and even if it were, world opinion can change rapidly from appreciation to condemnation. From the viewpoint of the US, these reactions constitute impediments to their direct support to any of these nations. Considering that the Egypt-Israel peace treaty has been unilaterally repudiated by Egypt and their open support for the Hamas militants, the US will move towards dealing with each country in the region separately and in a contextual manner. This will be a noticeable shift in the US foreign policy in the Middle East.

While the nuclear ambitions of Iran remain the fundamental challenge in the US-Iran relationship, it is also influenced by Iranian support to the Assad regime in Syria, and the Israel factor. There is a open difference in perspective between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu regarding where the invisible ‘red line’—crossing of which by Iran will constitute an act that will invite immediate military reprisal—should be drawn in relation to Iran’s nuclear activities. However, a somewhat mitigating factor in this charged situation is that Iran’s influence in the region has suffered a setback because of its unstinting support to the Syrian regime, even as the rest of the international community is condemning it. Considering its diminished status and the impact of the sanctions slowly being felt, the US is likely to take a tougher stand against Iran in the next four years.

In addition to these complicated challenges, the US has to deal with a recalcitrant Turkey that refuses to follow the US-lead in dealing with emerging regional issues. The US-Turkey relationship hit its nadir during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when US requests for over flight and troop staging were refused by the Turkish government. On the other hand, Turkey is a long-standing ally and a critical regional player whose support is almost a mandatory requirement for the success of any diplomatic initiative in the Middle East. The US has to reinvigorate its relations with Turkey. The other issue that the US has to deal with is Saudi Arabia’s double game of exporting destabilising forces through the support to religious extremism outside the nation. It is now time to call this bluff; inaction is no longer an option. The stakes, in terms of international stability, have become far too high to continue rejuvenating old and failed initiatives that normally backed friendly but diabolic despots.

President Obama is most likely to follow a non-interventionist but cooperative policy in the Middle East, gradually manoeuvring the Middle East into a side show of the US foreign policy initiatives. This attitude will become further entrenched as the energy needs of the world start to be met, at least in part, through other means outside the Middle East. The importance and priority that was accorded to this region is being diluted and is already on the wane. In his second term President Obama is more than likely to let the region muddle along on its own—no more at the centre-stage of US concerns.

Conclusion

There are five factors that will have salutary effects on the formulation of the foreign policy of President Obama in his second term. One, it will have to take into account the reduced ability of the US to lead and hence coerce reluctant nations to come onside; two, the greater confidence of smaller nations with growing economies in the political arena will be inimical to expanding the US sphere of influence; three, the President’s ability to make tough decisions at the strategic level will be impeded by the need to compromise with Pakistan for an uneventful withdrawal from the Af-Pak region and cater to the Israeli factor; four, the implications of the impending leadership change in China is not yet clear and will take some time to be deciphered while the President’s second term runs on inexorably; and five, the Asian scepticism regarding US intentions, ability and willingness to stay the course in its much touted pivot to the Indo-Pacific. Conundrums all; with no clarity regarding the optimum way forward for President Obama. These are interesting times that we live in!        

    
  

About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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