For those with a nose for nostalgia, the recent disappearance from public view of Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed like a retro reminder of the days when the USSR appeared on the map. In the early 1980s, the ABC of the Soviets was Andropov, Brezhnev and Chernenko, three general secretaries who went absent and as speculation spiralled, Pravda announced their demise.
Putin, of course, is back, and the reported reasons for him flying the coop ranged from the flu to a coup. With the crisis over Ukraine still brewing, agitation over the killing of an opposition leader brimming and the oil-based economy in brutal freefall, you could hardly blame him for giving Moscow a miss. But if the Kremlin was missing leadership, however temporarily, its old and resurrected adversary, the US has also gone AWOL when it comes to providing leadership.
In recent days, America has undergone a regimen change. US secretary of state John Kerry has been making nice with Teheran, trying to make a deal with the Iranians on their nuclear programme.
That comes after years of the White House whining that countries like India buying oil from Iran were diluting the effects of sanctions. As India veered around the American fiats, Obama’s foreign policy advisors also sniffed about New Delhi not getting drawn into Washington’s attempt to snuff out the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria.
Now, Kerry had this to say about its rejigged Damascus discourse: “We have to negotiate in the end.” All those red lines have disappeared in the shifting sands of West Asia. Continuity and coherence in America’s foreign policy approach have gone missing like those emails on Hillary Clinton’s personal server.
Blindsided by ISIS (which, about a year back, Obama described as a junior varsity version of al-Qaida), out of touch on Syria, deaf to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, there are multiple reasons why this administration’s regional policy has made little sense. In each instance, India’s pragmatism has prevailed.
But, perhaps, the missing link to this bipolar disorder in the US’ view of the world order is that the Obama administration respects its enemies (like that favourite tune in the Oval Office — Talking to the Taliban), indulges its frenemies, as in its red carpet reception recently for ISI chief Rizwan Akhtar, and leaves its friends with red faces.
As for the latter, it has even managed to consistently confound what are virtually its satellite states. The chill between the US and Canadian governments over Obama’s icing of the Keystone pipeline is coated with the Arctic permafrost. Dissing Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress is just another sign of America’s downbeat rhythm to relations with Israel.
That reality can’t escape Indian mandarins. As Manmohan Singh demitted office, Obama expressed “his appreciation for Dr (Manmohan) Singh’s friendship.” While the symbolism of such camaraderie was inspiring, with the first State dinner being hosted for him, in the final years of the UPA, he was an afterthought.
Obama wasn’t quite a friend in deed.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sought to revive the relationship. It isn’t surprising that the US is playing along, since Indian GDP is poised to exceed that of those combined for Japan and Germany.
That forecast is for 2019, however, and as Singh will vouch, there can be many predicaments between prediction and performance. Given the recent history, Modi cannot afford to suppose that his “friend Barack” will have his back.
Modi may claim his style is God-given, but the substance of his globe-trotting has been to sidestep the Obama doctrine, unless he wants India to partake of those manmade disasters.
All the while Putin was absent from action, Russia’s government went out of its way to pretend he was really present, even releasing photos supposedly taken a few days earlier. Ironically, America’s leaders have done exactly the opposite — marking themselves present while absent-minded when it comes to taking the lead.
Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs
The views expressed by the author are personal