Saturday, 1 September 2012

Will Obama rediscover himself? (PO)

By M D Nalapat

Barack Hussein Obama is a charmer. Ever since he won the Iowa primary and showed that he could reach across racial divisions, millions — including this columnist - were entranced by the man and his story. Fused to a campaign team that was fiercely loyal to him, it was a forlorn effort by John McCain and Sarah Palin, who were unable to stop the Obama tsunami from overwhelming them in 2008.In the early stages of his candidacy, Obama was shunned by those who for decades have made a comfortable life for themselves in Democratic administrations and in those parking lots for retired officials eager toresume government work, the thinktanks that dot Washington and New York. Almost all of them rooted for Hillary Clinton, because of loyalty to the man who had given so many of them high-level jobs during 1993-2001,Bill Clinton.

It was only when it became clear that Barack Obama was going to win the nomination and the Presidency that they shifted to his side, but with a caveat. This was that they were unwilling to abandon the Clintonite policies that they had implemented two terms back, and that therefore, Candidate Obama would need to jettison his own policies and follow those of Bill Clinton, once he got elected. Barack Obama did not let the Clintonites down. As several post-election books have pointed out, he distanced himself from the loyalists who had crafted his victory almost as soon as the election results came in. In place of the idealistic, mostly young, Team Obama, the new President of the United States surrounded himself with Team Clinton,led by the formidable Hillary. The present Secretary of State must be savouring her revenge over Obama backers such as Samantha Rice, who have been shunted to forgotten corners of the administration that they helped bring to office. The only prominent Obama backer who was given a substantive post has been Susan Rice, who is a close friend of Shirin Taher-Kheli, a US national with roots in the Subcontinent who has always taken the Pakistan army’s line on Kashmir, and who was particularly close to General Pervez Musharraf, who is in his own way as much a maestro in handling people as Obama.

This columnist is no friend of Musharraf, but has to admit that he swiftly and skillfully diverted the wrath of the Bush administration away from Pakistan when the Taliban facilitated the attack on the US which took place on 9/11 (2001) by sheltering and provisioning Osama bin Laden. In weeks, Musharraf gained a decisive voice in US military operations in Afghanistan and during 2003-06 especially, was able to replace several anti-Pakistan elements in Kabul with those friendly to Islamabad. If Pakistan is today still a major player in Afghanistan, most of the credit has to go to Pervez Musharraf. Although derided as “Busharraf”, the fact is that calling Bush “Mushbush” instead would be more accurate. The then US President and Vice-President were completely sold on a strategy that - as in the 1980s - placed Pakistan at the centre of the situation in Afghanistan.

Musharraf was expert at conveying an image that won the support of those he was seeking to neutralize. His successors have failed to accomplish this task, with the result that Pakistan has been getting a very bad press while essentially being not all that different societally from what it was during Musharraf’s time in office as CEO of Pakistan. The genial general stood by the military and gave it cover, even while making adjustments to ensure continued international support. In his steadfastness to his (uniformed) base, Pervez Musharraf distinguishes himself from Barack Obama, who jettisoned his followers when it was clear that he would be the next President of the US. Since 2009, President Obama has implemented a policy of “Clinton Lite”, surrounded as he by those close to the former president. As a consequence, he has followed the policy of giving a free pass to those in the financial sector who are guilty of cheating millions of investors of trillions. Indeed, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was complicit in several of the steps that led to the 2008 crisis, but because he was a favourite of Wall Street, Obama chose him. The only true “Obamian” in a crowd of Clintonites in the Obama Cabinet is Janet Napolitano, who has done a superb job at the Department of Homeland Security in preventing a terrorist attack on the US.

Although he has had wide exposure to Asia in his youth, once in office, Barack Obama has shifted to the Europeanism of the Clintons, placing exaggerated faith in NATO as an instrument of policy, especially in Asia, a continent that has ugly memories of European colonialism. He went along with Hillary andBill Clinton when the two decided to withdraw US backing from Hosni Mubarak, and to attack Muammar Kaddafy militarily, even though both had accommodated the strategic concerns of NATO fully, Mubarak for three decades and Kaddafy since 2003.The consequence has been that no sensible leader in the Arab world has any faith in the US or in the EU, being made aware of the fickle nature of such support by witnessing the killing of Kaddafy and the incarceration of Mubarak.

As for India, while Barack Obama supported India’s case for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council while in Delhi, he has thus far not repeated this suggestion at UN headquarters in New York, nor is he likely to do so. Under Obama, effective cooperation between India and the US has stalled, even though in Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh, this country has the most pro-US administration ever seen since 1947. Given the disconnect between what Barack Obama talks and what he follows in practice, it would be rash to believe that India-US relations would blossom during a second term in office. Unless, that is, Barack Obama finally found the courage to cast away the Clinton cloak that he has covered himself with since 2009 and returns to his own base, his own team. Should that happen a second innings for Barack Obama may be the game changer that so many of us thought his first term would be.

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