The United States — and the world — was a terribly different place when George W. Bush took over the Oval Office in January 2001. Both the American economy and the global one were chugging, terrorism was something that happened in ‘other places’ and the world was firmly aware of a unipolar world led by the United States whose only fault seemed to be a non-dangerous kind of arrogance that comes with happy smugness. By the time you read this, you will know who will be taking over from Mr Bush. Whether it’s President Barack Obama or President John McCain — and there will be an editorial tomorrow brimming with surprise if it happens to be the latter — the landscape has changed from that nearly eight years ago. Which means that the new President of America will not only inherit two wars it started, a global financial crisis which was unleashed in its backyard, and changed geo-political and economic realities, but he will need to tackle them head-on. In a way, being the 44th President of the United States of America will not be an enviable task.
If it is Mr Obama who has taken the sceptre, then one can expect a few course corrections. We can expect to see a calibrated exit from Iraq rather than a hurrying one considering that that particular war is settling into an ‘unstable stability’. But it is the other war in Afghanistan that will be a source of worry. Mr Obama, like Mr Bush of late, has correctly recognised that Pakistan will be able to do only that much against the Islamicist cauldron bubbling in the region. Something ‘drastic’ will have to be done sooner rather than later.
But war in the time of recession and mortgage crashes and lay-offs becomes ‘something that’s happening somewhere else’. Mr Obama wants to firm up America’s strained public healthcare and education system. Quite a few of his predecessors have fallen for the temptations of a ‘war economy’. In the world of January 2009, that kind of cherry picking is no longer a viable option. For America to chart these choppy waters, it will have to have a helmsman who understands and engages with the world on the world’s terms. Mr Obama or Mr McCain, today a changed America has elected its least insular President.