A hundred points of light
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A hundred points of light

Barack Obama’s record in office so far has been marked by cautious change, writes Sandeep Bhojwani.

india Updated: Apr 30, 2009 01:11 IST

Today marks the end of 100 days since US President Barack Obama’s inauguration. There were many factors about him and his campaign that appealed to most Americans. This included his use of technology, age and oratory skills. Crucially, his promise of change quickly gained popularity at home and abroad. Whether such change has been incorporated into US foreign policy is questionable.

One of the foreign policy highlights of the Obama administration has been the rapid engagement with Muslims and Muslim-dominated States. Policies such as the closure of Guantanamo Bay and Central Intelligence Agency ghost prisons, among others, have been both a sign of good faith and a message of change. Nevertheless, Obama has failed to go the extra mile by refusing to communicate with terrorist groups, despite Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal praising his approach to the West Asia conflict.

In the area of terrorism, with the relocation of troops from Iraq to Afghanistan and additional troops from North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) member countries, Obama’s following the same path as his predecessor George Bush. But Obama has also realised the important role and influence that Iran plays in the region, and has invited the Iranians to an Afghanistan and Pakistan conference. But what seems to be lacking in this grand strategy is the failure to learn from Russia’s campaign in Afghanistan, along with reluctance to take note of the inherent corruption within Hamid Karzai’s administration.

Though there has been talk of cooperating with Pakistan, relations with Pakistan are likely to remain shaky, as long as drone attacks continue, and as long as there is the reluctance to understand the relationship between the government and terrorist groups. It is a well-known fact that any Pakistani administration will require the help of terrorist groups to protect and maintain stability within its borders.

By gradually withdrawing from Iraq, Obama risks plunging Iraq into chaos, leading to regional instability. Declaring that Iraq is responsible for its own security is far-fetched. Currently, the Iraqi administration remains divided over US withdrawal, signifying a disunited government. Given the situation, it is likely that various tribes and sects might see any withdrawal as an opportunity to seize power.

With regard to relations with Iran, that country recently announced plans on a package to end the stalemate. Whilst from the outset it seems that diplomacy has triumphed, words like ‘respect the rights of all nations’ suggest that Iran will not give up its right to nuclear energy.

In light of this, the best-case scenario would be for Iran to agree to United Nations inspectors, in return for the right to nuclear energy. The worst-case scenario, on the other hand, would be that Iran maintains its nuclear programme, while talks fail, and risks being in the category of nations outside the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treat — like India, North Korea and Pakistan. If this happens, then Iran risks a possible response from Israel akin to the targeting of Iraq in the 1990s.

On the whole, relations with Russia have thawed. Supporters of Obama would point out that this is largely due to the change in policy and his attempt to press the ‘reset button’. However, the improvement in relations has much to do with the fact that Obama has decided to avoid confronting Russia on what may be thorny issues. Clear examples of this include America’s weak response to the closure of the Manas air base in Kazakhstan and avoidance of support to Ukraine and Georgia for Nato membership.

The decision to omit India from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to Asia suggests, to an extent, a sense of naivete in the administration’s outlook on foreign policy. Instead, priority has been given to developing closer ties with China. In doing so, there has been a failure to realise India’s role as a counter to China’s growing influence within the region.

Failure to criticise recent reports of a military build-up suggest that China will be given a free-hand within the region. Given these developments, it is very likely that once the world economy starts to recover, the US would find tensions in Asia uncontrollable.

A lot of sacrifices have been made to implement this policy of engagement. Like turning a blind eye to China’s violation of human rights, and to Russia’s hand in the closure of the Manas air base. Even worse is the administration’s apparent neglect in devising a strategy for resource-rich regions like Central Asia (for fear of Russia and China), Africa (for fear of China) and the Arctic. Even so, this is unlikely to lead to any reciprocity from these (self-interested) states. Failure to condemn North Korea’s missile launch is an example.

Washington has promised a new beginning in relations with Latin America. Progress to regain influence in the region is likely to stall for two reasons. First, the US insistence on democracy in Cuba as a precondition for lifting the trade embargo is both hypocritical (with human rights violations going unnoticed in China) and likely to be opposed by Venezuela. Second, given the influence Chavez enjoys, it is likely that relations will depend on whether he and Obama see eye-to-eye on policy issues affecting the region.

So far, the policy of ‘engagement’ has appealed to most. Dialogue aside, Obama’s foreign policy has been a classic example of the ‘two steps forward, one step back’ approach. But on a more positive note, there has a been a definite tweaking of US foreign policy, in recognition of a changing world order, to work with emerging multilateral powers rather than against them.

Sandeep Bhojwani is an Australia-based researcher in International Relations

First Published: Apr 30, 2009 01:08 IST