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The Obama moment and the challenges it brings

November 21, 2008

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Barack Obama's win in the US presidential election is momentous but it is about America and because it took Americans 230 years after independence and 150 years after the Civil War to send an American-African to the White House. For Americans it seems to be the triumph of hope, and exult they must. After eight years of attempts at regime change the world over, the Republicans had handed over a regime change at home.

Paradoxically the strength of the victory, the natural exultation and excessive euphoria create dangers for America and Obama. The President-elect had sold dreams and the Americans bought them. And he may have sold one too many. Yet his predecessor has left him on top of the debris of disastrous foreign endeavours and an economic meltdown from where recovery will not be easy. The Obama moment may be over sooner than expected and collapse on a host of unfulfilled expectations.

There will be many expectations in America of immediate and magical relief. In our enthusiasm we sometimes forget that though it may be a melting pot, the US is also a country which has its divisions of race, of class and political beliefs. All these differences will get accentuated when Obama gets down to tackling the problems of a federal deficit that may touch $1 trillion and a mounting national debt that may reach $10 trillion. Abu Ghraib and less the Statue of Liberty now symbolises America in many parts of the world. This is the George W Bush [Images] legacy.

Obama spoke of change. So had Donald Rumsfeld when in September 2001 he said that America had a choice: either Americans changed the way they lived which was unacceptable or Americans changed the way others lived. The US chose the latter. According to the ultimate neo-con Douglas Feith, America's purpose was to transform the Middle East and the broader world of Islam generally. The biggest change in external policies would be how the so-called and the badly flawed global war on terror is going to be handled by the new administration.

The realities of governance are always vastly different from the pronouncements of election rhetoric. Judging from some of the names doing the rounds in DC as his prospective advisers, it seems that the President-elect is already discovering that change may not be all that easy nor that radical. He may have to rely on hardliners of the previous Democratic establishments. Obama will quickly discover the limitations of power and the resilience of the bureaucracy and flowing from this, that there are some things he can change and some things he cannot. All he now needs is the wisdom to know the difference between the two.

Yet in India we are naturally concerned what the new administration has in store for us. Since we had declared undying love for Obama's predecessor, it is not easy for us to change allegiance so quickly, and conversely we also need to give the President-elect some time to assess our fealty.

Besides there will be other more important issues on his plate. The economy would be the first priority and could take up most of his time in the first few months. This is going to be the most difficult part and any failure here will mean loss of lustre. Energy security, Russia [Images] and China, Israel and the Palestinian question, extrication from Iraq and the global war on terror (which means Afghanistan and Pakistan) will all push India off the table. This is because India is neither the centre for terrorism that threatens US interests nor an economic power which both helps and threatens US interests. In both cases there is a stronger likelihood of the US favouring its interests in Pakistan and China.

For India the worry is not who is appointed Secretary of State or that Hillary Clinton [Images] might be a Special Envoy on Kashmir. So long as everyone remembers that the issue in Kashmir is not just about Kashmiri rights, it also about Gilgit and Baltistan, about the areas occupied by Pakistan which are all part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir [Images]. Pakistani obsession with Kashmir is not about the human rights of the people of the valley. It is also about the waters of the Chenab river that irrigate the farms of Pakistani Punjab but which do not flow from the valley. The worry is that an absentminded decision about US policy, without taking every aspect into consideration and at the prompting of some aide, could lead to a downslide in India-US relations.

Some of us in India are worried about what the new presidency might do or want to do on issues like NPT and CTBT that may affect us, or in Kashmir, or for Pakistan in preference to India. Already there was some heartburn in India that Obama chose to talk to Asif Zardari first rather than Manmohan Singh [Images]. Pakistanis are off the starting block and have begun their campaign with Ahmed Rashid along with Barnett Rubin leading the charge. Recently they suggested in an article in the influential Foreign Affairs that the Afghanistan problem is solvable provided India can be brought on board on the Kashmir issue. For a man keen to solve the Afghanistan problem for America's sake this could be a tempting argument.

Richard Haass in his essay in Newsweek has suggested to the new president that Pakistan and Afghanistan should be treated as one problem since Pakistan provides sanctuaries to the Taliban [Images]. This is fine but the solution, that assistance to Pakistan should continue; there should be additional economic and military aid to bolster the government, is flawed. It is difficult to understand how the Taliban in Afghanistan have to be punished while their sponsors in Pakistan have to be rewarded.

How often has the US administration not followed this carrot and more carrot policy in the past only to be double-crossed? So often that one begins to wonder if this really is the policy. The same mistakes of the past -- of offering dialogue and development assistance to delinquent regimes or to religious zealots will only make them stronger in their delinquency or zealotry -- will be repeated in this policy.

In dealing with the rest of the world it would be wise for the new administration to remember that America's unipolar moment is over. The rise of Asia is inevitable. The US is still the world's largest economy, with a global military reach and the highest technological development but it can no longer call nations to blind obedience nor lead it alone. After years of profligacy, the US owes it to the world to sort out its economic mess. Multi-polarity is the new route to security.

Thus one major lesson that the new establishment may want to carry is about the limitations of power. US forces as configured at present, despite the bases the world over and huge Pentagon and Intelligence expenditures, are not configured for goals of total dominance. Meanwhile, military control and intelligence collection and even operations have been increasingly outsourced both to establish greater deniability and circumvent Congressional control. Over time, the government will lose institutional memory, data, talent and experience and ultimately control.

Today the US military forces, whatever the strength, cannot overcome local resistance and therefore be the global guardian unless it is prepared to take countless body bags. The temptation thus would be to cajole surrogates into inhospitable regions in the pursuit of US interests. There are some, eager to prove India's self-proclaimed major power status, who recommend Indian troops being committed to Afghanistan. It would be naive to expect that Pakistan will not protest most shrilly about being encircled while seeing this as an opportunity to target Indian troops. The only way Pakistan would accept this (Indian troops in Afghanistan) is an iron-clad 'solution' of the Kashmir issue and then proceed to convert Afghanistan into India's Vietnam.

There has always been a continuity of foreign policy in the US based on the central theme of total control. John Kennedy spoke of 'America first' -- not if, not but, just first. Methods have varied and Bush followed the unilateral military route. Will Obama be different and acquiesce willingly to a multilateral multi-polar system? Or will the more things change, the more they remain the same?

For President-elect Obama the hard reality of governance is going to sink in rapidly. The world will wait to see if this triumph of hope, will transform into fulfilment of that hope.

Vikram Sood is a former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing, India's external agency

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