US President's intended changes widely accepted

Barack Obama has just started his new term with a new team for foreign and security policy. Will the new team also signal a change of style and substance?

This is the question being discussed not only in the US, but also in world capitals including Delhi, for despite all the talk of the US losing some of its hyper power, what it plans and does is still of interest to others if not impacting them. The debate is fuelled by at least three crucial changes in choices of personalities for posts: John Kerry as the  Secretary of State, Chuck Hagel at Pentagon and John Brennan at the CIA. A key player, the Vice President Joe Biden remains. Despite formidable colleagues, it is believed that the undisputed number one in all matters will be the President himself. What is the reading of the experts on the changes?

That changes are intended is widely accepted. Some of it is because of objective realities and others are more matters of  mindsets. First, there is a realisation that America has to set its own house in order and attend to its domestic imperatives, above all a more sustainable budget and thereafter employment generation. There are reforms that are close to Obama’s heart and perhaps America’s needs: health care, better education, improving the infrastructure, immigration policy, bringing back manufacturing. The list is long but specific and all are actionable with some support in the congress. A substantial cut in the budget of the Pentagon, a budget that overwhelmingly exceeds that of all the major powers put together, is a priority that links the domestic agenda to the security outlook.

To trace how far that outlook has changed in terms of changing the world, we have to remember not Obama’s first  inaugural in 2008, but Junior Bush’s first in 2001. It seems long ago, but is not really so, when a group of key figures under the then Vice President Dick Cheney believed that they could ‘create reality’ or at least  bend it to their will, especially in creating a new middle-east.

Supreme confidence

Such hubris of the neo-conservatives with supreme confidence in America’s abilities led to Iraq, and all be it for different reasons to Afghanistan. Obama’s world view has been different and more cautious, and the mood of a large section of America matches his. For all the chest thumping and the drum beating that characterises American security politics, the sense of  omnipotence in terms of dictating the course of events in the world, or even omniscience in terms of understanding it has dimmed. Within the Obama team there is greater awareness of the limits to American power, according to analysts.

“Is there an overarching security doctrine under Obama?” asks Steve Coll, in a recent commentary and answers that ‘no ambitious transformational agenda’ is evident in terms of the foreign policy. It is more a ‘management’ function rather than grander doctrines such as promoting democracy, or maintaining supremacy, or God forbid, fighting the axis of something or the other. There are several components in this management act. The most commented is the ‘pivot to Asia’ with a reassignment of priority to Asia instead of Europe.

The rise of China, peaceful or otherwise makes this inevitable. Looking at other hotspots, there appears to be a healthy - or is it helpless - scepticism about the ability to influence the currents of the Arab awakening. Few are able to fathom it, let alone interfere with it as it unfolds in Egypt for instance. Both Kerry and Hagel are war veterans with a reputation for having internalised the horrors of war and therefore cautious about an excessively militaristic approach. This may translate into being more inclined towards diplomatic instruments and being more wary of force on issues relating to Iran or Israel.

We may soon see the manifestation of such an approach at ‘talk and negotiate' with Iran.  Ironically and contra-intuitively, the use of Drones and such other technological tools as instruments in unconventional conflicts fit into this war-wary mindset. As pointed out in a previous column, Drones are seen as less bloody and more effective by its advocates, and Obama may see them as lessening the ‘fog of war’. Another element of the approach that is emerging is to act with partners rather than go alone and to bring to a theatre of conflict those operational instruments that the US alone can provide. We saw examples of this in Libya and may see them in Syria.

And what of Afghanistan and Pakistan, issues  of critical concern to us ? All the trends and impulses identified above and in addition the frustration of failure may result in an approach frankly to be described as ‘cutting the losses’, but without saying so. The war fatigue, the domestic pressure to disengage, the realisation that to impose some order let alone build the country is beyond anyone’s reach, may lead to a process of disengagement that will be profoundly dissatisfying. From our point of view, not for the first time, our perceptions and paths are likely to diverge.

All this in the realm of ‘what is yet to come’. But as the famous quotation from  Harold McMillan goes ......’events, my dear boy, events are what blows off a statesman from his course’. Time will  tell whether Obama will get the opportunity to focus on his domestic agenda to create his legacy or will be forced to confront another agenda driven by an external crisis.

(The writer is a former Ambassador and a visiting Professor at the Jamia Milia University in Delhi)

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