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Creating a moral base for US foreign policy

January 09, 2013 17:05 IST

ObamaObama is signalling much more than a new leadership style of using more carrots than sticks, more ideas and persuasion than threats and sanctions. The bottom line is that now that he won't be running again, Obama wants to really test a values-based foreign policy approach that relies on negotiations, says M K Bhadrakumar.

In Spanish, they say 'Dime con quien andas y te dire quien eres' (Tell me with whom you walk and I will tell you who you are).

The saying came to mind when the United States President Barack Obama walked into the East Room in the White House on Monday evening with former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel who is going to be his nominee for defence secretary. 

Hagel is an extraordinary person for the US president to walk with at this point in America's trajectory as the world's lone superpower with a military spending that outstrips the rest of the world added up.

Obama underscored it by saying his choice of Hagel is 'historic' since the former senator would be the 'first from the enlisted rank' to serve as secretary of defence and 'one of the few secretaries who have been wounded in war' who would know 'war is not an abstraction… [and] understands that sending young Americans to fight and bleed in the dirt and mud, that's something we only do when it's absolutely necessary.'

Obama said everything that needed to be said about Hagel -- that is, almost everything. What he didn't say but is on everyone's mind nonetheless is also important to recount: Hagel is someone who opposed the Iraq war and in fact he went on to seek an investigation over the reasons given by the George W Bush administration to justify the 2003 invasion. He is someone who questioned the 'surge' in Afghanistan and drew parallels with Vietnam and who is a strong critic of economic sanctions in general.

And, by the way, he favours talks with the Hamas. Here is someone who won't mistake engagement as 'appeasement' but will regard it an 'opportunity to better understand' others, and who advocates that great and powerful nations 'must be adults in world affairs'.

Here is a future US defence secretary who believes that the conflicts of the future 'are beyond the control of any great power' and unlikely to involve unilateral US action; and who estimates that the defence department that he is going to run 'in many ways has become bloated' and 'in many ways… the Pentagon needs to be pared down.' 

That is to say, prima facie, Hagel is an odd choice as the defence secretary if conventional wisdom holds good that the US foreign policy is driven by that country's military-industrial complex and pervasive lobbies and is embedded deep within American imperialism.

So, where is the real departure? The answer to the question lies in Obama's political personality. He has been a proponent of 'soft power' but being a consummate politician, he proved to be a pragmatic president in his first term, surrounding himself with advisers such as Hillary Clinton, Dennis Ross, Robert Gates, who he knew very well to be by no means his soulmates sharing the beliefs he boldly professed -- on the Iraq war, Guantanamo Bay, etc. -- while being an aspirant for the Oval Office.

And looking back, Obama picked up the threads on many issues where Bush left them and he coolly abandoned some of his own campaign promises. Suffice to say, the nomination of Hagel harks back to the 'audacity of hope' that Obama held out at the time of his entry into national politics in the US.

The big question is: Are we about to witness the real beginning of the Obama era in the US foreign policy?

A good case can be made that Obama is breaking out of the image of timidity that somehow came to be associated with the foreign policy he pursued in his first term. Of course, to be fair to him, the lurking suspicion was always there that as a clever politician he deliberately chose not to follow his instincts during his first term as president in order to get re-elected. To be sure, he disappointed his admirers and supporters -- and ended up at times vindicating his detractors -- but then, it is never an easy balance to strike between value-based politics and the politics of expediency.

Arguably, a combination of the difficult circumstances within the US and the complexities of the emerging world order would now enable Obama to settle on a style of leadership, finally, that is value-based and accords to his beliefs and convictions. Meanwhile, liberated from the exigencies of having to fight another election, he is also free to follow his instincts. Obama being a gifted intellectual with a strong sense of history would also have his eyes cast on his presidential legacy at this defining moment in his meteoric career as a statesman.

Having said that, Obama cannot also be unaware of the rise of other leading states on the international arena and he is most certainly conscious of the growing limits to the US's dominant military might in the international system. On the other hand, as he never tires of admitting, he is a great patriot who is a votary of the deeply ingrained ideas of American exceptionalism, and is a sincere believer in the US's destiny as a world leader. Without doubt, therefore, he will continue to hold American interests and seek to perpetuate the US' lead role in world affairs, although his methods may vary.

However, it may not also be necessarily up to Obama to set his foreign policy compass, given the volatility of the international environment. He is going to be as much a 'victim' of events overseas as a navigator. Take the Iran problem, for example. Reaching a grand bargain with Iran may seem a low-hanging fruit -- ensuring that Tehran doesn't pursue a nuclear weapon programme in return for Washington lifting the onerous economic sanctions – but it overlooks that there are entrenched interest groups on both sides, including among some of the US's key allies in the region, who would continue to thwart any attempts by him to unfreeze the US-Iran ties.

Again, ending the crisis is Syria may seem a deceptively simple matter of working out a deal with Russia and of the US exercising self-restraint by refraining from directly involving in fighting the war. But on the contrary, the sectarian conflict may already have let loose demons that could prove to be difficult to control even with the best of intentions in Moscow and Washington. Similarly, the Arab Spring is yet in its early stages and already the ground reality is that the US is barely coping with the torrential flow of events.

Clearly, the will to end the Afghan war is undeniably there on Obama's part, but then, the challenge of reassuring a problematic Pakistan and cajoling it to relinquish its long-held objective of gaining 'strategic depth' and give up the support for Taliban as a hedge to ward off the Indian influence in Kabul as the US role wanes is a formidable one with no clear prospects of the end result in view, although the withdrawal of US combat troops is scheduled to be completed within the year.

Yet, imagine, all these troubling questions are also closely linked to the US's discourse with the Muslim world. Moving further on, the expert opinion happens to be that the US's relations with China and Russia may remain rough. The US's 'rebalancing' to Asia, its propensity to get involved in China's territorial disputes and its support of democratic advances in Myanmar, etc, Obama's own 'Asia Pivot Tour' soon after the November election -- Beijing sees these as provocative.

Similarly, Obama needs to reinvent the 'reset' with Russia but whether he feels the urge to strike a productive relationship with President Vladimir Putin remains in doubt. The high probability is that although Obama has promised 'more flexibility' with Russia on the thorny issue of missile defence after re-election, the US administration would still continue to engage Russia selectively on pressing issues of concern to the US and ignoring Russia.

On its part, Moscow seems to appreciate that no real breakthrough in the increasingly acrimonious need be expected during Obama's second term.

Thus, on balance, it all but seems that the more things appear to change, the more they remain the same. But that will also be a gross simplification of the powerful signal Obama has chosen to send by selecting two Vietnam War veterans for the two key cabinet posts of secretaries of state and defence -- John Kerry and Hagel.

Obama is signalling much more than a new leadership style of using more carrots than sticks, more ideas and persuasion than threats and sanctions. The bottom line is that now that he won't be running again, Obama enjoys far greater manoeuvring space and flexibility than ever before during the past four years to really test a values-based foreign policy approach that relies on negotiations. 

M K Bhadrakumar