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Beyond good enough

Whatever some may say the end of a period when the US acted more like a miser than a maestro is in India's interest. Chanakya writes.

columns Updated: Nov 10, 2012 22:51 IST

Frustrated at the reluctance of the State Department and the Pentagon to disengage the United States from Afghanistan, the White House team of President Barack Obama put together its own team to find a way out of the war. They began meeting at the fag end of 2010 and informally called their committee "Afghan Good Enough."

Good Enough was, in many ways, the motto of the US during the first Obama presidential term. Overwhelmingly conscious of how a combined financial and housing crisis had devastated his country, Obama chose to treat foreign policy as a credit entry in his budgetary ledger.

The two biggest red ink splotches were the wars in Iraq, already starting to wind down by the time he took office, and Afghanistan, a war that was really a struggle about the future of Pakistan. Obama fiddled with a surge policy so that he couldn't be blamed for not trying and then began pulling the boots out. Nation-building and all that were abandoned. There were attempts, at times comical, to talk to the Taliban. Afghanistan would be a low-level war without winners or losers. Good enough.

Obama's handling of China was driven by a similar approach. After all, this was the creditor superpower of the world, so it had to be handled with unusually high respect. So he wooed the rulers of the Middle Kingdom, offering to share the global podium with them, and more.

The consequences to the US strategic standing in the region were seen as something we will handle later. And there were plenty. As the foreign minister of one the US's Asia-Pacific treaty allies was overheard saying, "Obama went to Beijing and kowtowed. So our countries have to adjust accordingly." But for Obama this was China Good Enough.

New Delhi was miffed because having come off the strategic high of the Bush administration, it was confronted with a US leader who was more chief executive than commander-in-chief. His first ambassador to India spent more time trying to peddle Midwestern dairy products than talking strategy. Obama did the same thing with Pakistan - a country at the heart of a half-dozen of the most important security threats facing the US. We'll give you aid, you give us land access to Afghanistan. We'll give you weapons, you fight in Swat Valley.

Beltway thinkers complained at the strange piecemeal way that Obama was running his foreign policy. He made wonderful speeches, but to paraphrase Georgia O'Keefe there was no there there. Fareed Zakaria gave a double-edged defence, writing people should "stop searching for an Obama doctrine." The world, he argued, was too diffuse and ever-changing for anyone to come up with a single foreign policy framework.

Obama now has his second and final term in office. The world is now wondering if Good Enough will transform into something more substantive - Pretty Good perhaps?

The answer is that the transformation started taking place some time ago. Obama abandoned the so-called G-2 policy with China, as one senior State Department official told me, "sixteen months into his term." His national security adviser, Tom Donilon, has made no bones that his "pivot to Asia" was a policy waiting in the sidelines - waiting for Iraq and Afghanistan to cease to extract such a huge financial and political cost to the administration.

Obama will still be tempted to look for Good Enough solutions. Iran, for example. This is what scares the Saudis and the Israelis, that Obama will settle for containing rather than preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. A White House official has been quoted as saying that "there were more meetings on Iran than there were on Iraq, Afghanistan and China in year one" of the Obama presidency. The White House released Stuxnet viruses on Iran's centrifuges and looked the other way as Israeli-trained assassins plied their trade in Tehran. But this was a holding action. Iran Good Enough. Obama will need to seek a more permanent solution in his second term.

The last two years we have seen the US implement a set of foreign policies that are more than just temporary fixes. Not all are nice. Afghanistan seems doomed to low-equilibrium chaos. But it may force Pakistan to look itself in the mirror. China is increasingly facing what amounts to a thinly-veiled containment policy. But notice how much nicer it is to India these days? The next two years could see a genuine Obama doctrine form. And whatever some may say the end of a period when the US acted more like a miser than a maestro is in India's interest. If the past two years are anything to go by, Good Enough will metamorphose into something Damn Good for the international system.