In the comedy classic Animal Crackers, Groucho Marx quips that “There’s one thing I always wanted to do before I quit.” Asked what that was, he responds, “Retire!”
As American President Barack Obama enters the final year of his occupation of the White House, that’s the sort of Marxist thought that may have occurred to him, given how the early days of the New Year have shaped up.
He had recovered ground in recent months, assuming leadership on an issue like climate change, showed fine domestic and economic chops, but conceded it rapidly as the Friday the 13th rampage raged through Paris in November. He’s engineered social change at home, but global chaos could envelop the waning months of his tenure. Nearly a year since he watched the Republic Day march past with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on a drizzly day in New Delhi, there is much rain on Obama’s parade.
Just to turn that downpour into a deluge, North Korea’s li’l Kim Jong-Un decided to drop an H-bomb into the global conversation, which the official state news agency described as “a world startling event to be specially recorded in the national history spanning 5,000 years in the exciting period.” A few hours earlier, its official Twitter handle had trolled the US President, “Barack Obama weeps before camera, confesses his unfitness to be President. Supreme leader Kim Jong-Un enjoys confidence of all DPRK peoples.” This, though, was one of the more timid diatribes that pass for dialogue from this source, one that has referred to Hillary Clinton as a “venomous saprophyte” and noted how “respected scholar” Donald Trump “states US Senator Ted Cruise was born a wretched slave in Canada”.
I doubt, though, the explosive power of the North Korean device was anywhere close to that of current events in West Asia. Saudi Arabia likes its executions just as much as Obama enjoys executive orders, as we’ve seen this week, with the execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. From the Saudis themselves, to the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Bahrain, Kuwait, et al, diplomatic ties with Iran are unravelling faster than the promise of the Arab Spring sprung a leak. The Blame Bush doctrine may have been employed like a shield when it came to the rise of the IS (which Obama said was “contained” hours before the November 2015 Paris attacks), but this sectarian crisis comes under Obama’s ownership.
Meanwhile, as Russia talks turkey to Ankara, Pakistan’s vultures hover over Kabul. The Obama foreign policy’s dirty laundry list includes Libya, Mali, Boko Haram, Yemen. There are more holes this administration has dug for itself than there are on the golf course Obama frequented on his latest Hawaiian vacation. And we haven’t completed 10 days in January yet. For Obama, this is the retirement plan from hell.
And as Modi dropped in on a Nawaz Sharif family wedding and got a siege in Pathankot as a return gift, the response from the US was predictable: “What we want and what we continue to say we want and will continue to work for is increased cooperation, communication, coordination; increased information sharing and increased efforts against what we all believe is a shared challenge in the region,” a State Department spokesman droned mechanically. Wherever that engagement heads, the US has less influence upon it than ever before since Obama would rather focus on Afghanistan not completely collapsing, at least not over the next 12 months. After that, his challenges will be setting up a presidential library, perhaps a foundation, and making more appearances on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.
Just about the only nation paying attention to Obama at this time may be Canada, which may be why its new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau got an invite to a state dinner at the White House. After all, breaking bread with a non-threatening neophyte is better than butting heads with beheaders.
The sound of that ball dropping isn’t a replay of the revels at Times Square on New Year’s Eve, but that of it landing with a thud in the Oval Office.
Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs
The views expressed are personal