Obama’s four more in foreign policy

Spearhead Analysis – 24.01.2013

By Aima Khosa
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

“Fecklessness and timidity disguised as false humility won’t do; we are expected to lead whether we are asked to or want to.” – Paul Bonicelli

The thing about grand illusions is that they are the often just that – grand illusions. And illusions of grandeur hardly make for implementable solutions and policies. A black man leading the world’s most powerful nation is no longer a distant dream for Americans, nor is it achievement that points to greatness of the country when the said leader is facing a difficult second term with regards to foreign policy.

Obama’s second term seems to be shifting the focus from international politics to domestic crisis. In less than two months of being elected, Obama has had to face two serious challenges against the Republican front; the gun control laws and the fiscal cliff. At the same time, American troops are ready to begin withdrawal from Afghanistan and the two governments are in the process of wrapping up final details of the role of US in Afghanistan after 2014.

In terms of foreign policy, Afghanistan is the biggest challenge for the new Obama administration because how they handle the withdrawal (with its terms and conditions) will have a direct impact on South Asian region. This is a tight rope to walk on. Who gets the biggest stake? Would it be India, Afghanistan’s biggest non-NATO donor? Or would it be Pakistan, a neighboring country with an immediate interest in security and stability in Afghanistan? How will Obama walk the line between Pakistan and India in the Afghan paradigm? In the face of faltering European economies and an increasing global shift to propped-up Asian economies, who can Obama afford to rub the wrong way? One would assume that it would be Pakistan; a smaller country with volatile institutions, poor economic situation and an increasingly smaller role in the war on terror. It makes sense to leave the decisions of the Af-Pak border to the Afghanistan and Pakistani political forces, wash off the remaining bits of the decade-long engagement in the region and leave. So while the Pakistani forces might be harboring under the illusion that they got the front seat in Afghanistan’s future, India might secretly steal the show by continuing its construction work, investing in mineral extractions and setting up consulates in the country and overall expanding its economic influence to assert political dominance. To please some domestic forces back Washington, Obama is expected to continue the drone policy in Pakistan – and it won’t matter much to the president, because hey, at least the American troops are out of harm’s way.

Iran has been in a thorn in sides of a lot of US presidents and Obama’s second term looks no different. The US-Iran relationship represents one of the biggest foreign policy failures on the part of the United States’ administration. US Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, a former Bush administration Deputy National Security Advisor, remarked, “If you want to be serious about regime change [in Iran], I give you Iraq 2003. Have a nice day.” But mulling over the same options that were used for Iraq in 2003 are not as plausible for Iran as the country is heavily immersed in almost all of US insecurities: nuclear non-proliferation, energy security, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, counterterrorism, and Arab-Israeli peace.

The Nobel peace prize winning president has led the US-Iran relationship to a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. A deep tradition of mistrust and resentment has forged the current US-Iran relationship. Sanctions have had a further crippling effect on the relationship and most experts would agree that sanctions on Iran have had more negative consequences than positive. Bush admitted to have “sanctioned US out of options with Iran” in 2004 and eight years later, nothing has changed. Raza Marashi wrote in the Foreign Policy Magazine, “here’s the bottom line: They’ve never actually worked. Sanctions are meant to change Iran’s strategic calculus to such a degree that the costs of maintaining its current policy trajectory outweigh the benefits — thus pressuring Iran into “changing its behavior.” Rather than capitulate or change course, however, Iran continues to expand and advance its nuclear program.”

Obama’s unwillingness to provide relief to Iranians from sanctions may just be removing the panacea from the equation and decreasing US leverage in negotiations with the Iranian government.

US obsession with Iran’s nuclear programme is also peculiar. At least 16 US intelligence agencies have asserted that Iran has conducted no nuclear weapons-related experiments since 2003, that it currently has no nuclear weapons program, and that is has not made the political decision to pursue nuclear weapons. In theory, this provides ample space for Obama to pursue a sustained process of diplomacy dedicated to ensuring that Iran’s nuclear programme remains away from entering a dangerous sphere.

However, Obama does not seem to be acting on the theory. Instead, Washington seems to be relying on the same policies from the 1980s where sensational journalism, coercive measures and deep-rooted mistrust takes the front seat. Obama is being conservative about Iran and that may perhaps be his mistake in failing to fix the Iranian foreign policy crisis.

Iran is unwilling to enter the current security framework set up by global powers, led by the United States. And Obama is unwilling to alter the terms of this framework to take in Iran’s preferences. Perhaps it is time for Obama to talk to his Iranian counterparts directly, without the UN acting as a buffer zone. And perhaps it is time for Obama’s second term to lead to lifting of some sanctions on Iran as a gesture of readiness to resolve the long-standing conflict to both the countries. There needs to be a change in tone – perhaps President Obama might do well without ultimatums. The successes of Obama’s second term rely heavily on foreign policy successes and the legacy that leaves behind. If the United States has assumed the role of leading global powers, then perhaps it is time President Obama starts looking outwards instead of inwards.