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All talk, no direction

American foreign policy is desperately seeking traction. There are fears of a creeping strategic paralysis in Washington, DC, writes Ashok Malik.

india Updated: May 05, 2009 23:07 IST

Behind the flamboyant gestures, public symbolism and easy charm, is there a method to Barack Obama’s foreign policy? Obama has travelled to Europe, given a conciliatory speech in Turkey where he spoke of Muslim members in his family, greeted President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela in Spanish at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad. These are cute stories for the media. In policy terms, do they add up to anything?

On substantive issues, Obama has not revealed his mind. Dozens of State Department officials, diplomats, ambassadors, special envoys, plenipotentiaries may clock up thousands of air miles. However, they can’t actually do anything till the President decides what he wants done.

American foreign policy is desperately seeking traction. There are fears of a creeping strategic paralysis in Washington, DC. At the Foreign Office in New Delhi, this view is not uncommon.

Examples would help. First, Obama must be conscious his administration has sent very mixed signals on how it views the war against terror. It is clearly torn between realists and the extreme left of the Democratic Party.

The recent ‘interrogation memos’ controversy exposed the depth of division. The President banned CIA interrogation methods such as sleep deprivation and water boarding. His administration released classified material detailing these interrogation/torture methods and their authorisation in the George W. Bush years. This led to a bitter quarrel. Republicans and CIA veterans said the release of the memos would damage intelligence community morale. Dick Cheney, the former Vice-President, defended the previous interrogation framework as “enormously valuable in… preventing another mass casualty attack”. He also asked for release of other memos that “showed the success of the effort… specifically what we gained as a result of this activity”.

Essentially, Cheney said the Obama team was telling half the truth. On the other hand, aides and supporters of the new President have called for trials of those who provided legal underpinning to the interrogation methods, the CIA officials who used them and perhaps the political leadership that sanctioned them.

So far Obama has refused to rise to the bait. However, to some degree, the damage has already been done. There is a sense that his administration is fundamentally ambivalent on the conduct of the battle against terror, his Homeland Security Secretary even abolishing the term ‘terrorism’ and insisting on the phrase ‘man-caused disasters’. The quest to ‘regain’ America’s ‘moral compass’ — Paul Krugman’s reasoning to justify prosecution of those who tortured terror suspects — is a fine one. Yet, it would not serve Obama if it came at the cost of America’s strategic compass.

Second, move to the Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) crisis. Early in his term, Obama announced an inter-agency strategic review. Made public in March, the Af-Pak strategy document is a calibrated compromise of various ideas and perceptions among different stakeholders in Washington DC. It is not perfect — no document can be — but has much one can work with.

However, what the strategy lacks is an overarching political message. That was not the brief of its authors, upstanding public servants and astute intelligence professionals; it is for the President to give the strategy political direction.

The most important decision-maker in the Af-Pak theatre today seems to be General David Petraeus, Commander of the United States Central Command. Petraeus is a well-regarded soldier and is critical to defining the military tactics of the war. He cannot shape its political strategy. That again is the President’s job. Here Obama is under conflicting pressures. There is a case for expanding the war and radically redefining the map and future of Af-Pak. That is a massive enterprise. To some it is unavoidable. To others it is suicidal, could suck America into a 20-year conflict and destroy the Obama presidency.

This second school would want to keep lowering benchmarks, declare victory at some stage and go home. Washington, DC, has cogent, persuasive voices from both sides. Sooner or later, Obama has to make his choice. He cannot spend four years walking the tightrope.

Third, the degree of partisanship in US foreign policy formulation is sobering. In New Delhi, there is a belief that while the BJP and the Congress routinely cripple each other’s efforts, American politicians are consistent on their nation’s external relations.

Things have turned out differently. Hostility to Bush is so strong among sections of the Obama team, it overrides all other priorities. Empty, sometimes churlish actions — not including the Indian Prime Minister in the first round of phone calls; shaking hands with the Venezuelan President and snubbing the Afghan President — are motivated by a desire to be seen as somehow different. Bush’s anti-terror doctrine is repudiated even as components of it are embraced.

That aside, the presence of Hillary Clinton as Obama’s Secretary of State represents an unnatural and unsustainable factional alliance within the Democratic Party. At some point in the next two years, Hillary Clinton will need to consider running again for the presidency and distance herself from Obama. She is likely to use foreign policy as a turf of dissent, and is already making stronger noises on Af-Pak than others.

Much of the semiotics has nothing to do with India. However, all this does make Washington, DC, that much more unsettled and unpredictable as an international actor and a diplomatic locus. That’s how the world is seeing it. It is for Obama to clarify the picture.

Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based journalist.