A key trait of liberal politics, which Barack Obama is steering forward in America today, is its comfort with global Islamism. This comfort was on display when Obama, soon after his victory four years ago, pledged to release al-Qaeda terrorists from Guantanamo Bay and hold talks with Iran’s mullahs. It was also evident when the United States forged contacts with the Taliban in Afghanistan. This is also the domain of liberal politics in which for the next four years Obama will face his two biggest foreign policy challenges: the rise of Islamist forces in the Middle East and Iran’s nuclear programme.
For India, China and Russia, the next Obama years are unlikely to witness shifts in the US foreign policy. The new era in India-US relations was inaugurated by P V Narasimha Rao, the visionary prime minister of India, when he told the US Congress on May 18, 1994 that India was set to produce the world’s largest middle class and capable of sharing its global responsibilities. Bill Clinton nudged the two nations forward and George W Bush bolstered the bilateral strategic relationship with a civil nuclear pact. Under Obama, India and the US have not made progress; the expected US investment in Indian economy is yet to come, while New Delhi has been forced to cut its import of Iranian oil.
During his first term, Obama was so intent on introducing systematic changes to American body politic, as seen in the socialist enterprise of the 2010 Healthcare Act, that he neglected economy and foreign policy. He failed to take initiatives on global trade. The trade pacts with South Korea, Panama and Colombia, which the US inked in 2011, were initiated before Obama came to power. “If you are worried about the rise of China,” former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice reminded Americans on August 29, “just consider this: the US has ratified only three trade agreements in the last few years, and those were negotiated in the Bush administration. China has signed 15 free trade agreements and is in the progress of negotiating as many as 18 more.”
One factor shaping the emerging global geopolitics is the rise of China. Beijing will have enormous diplomatic clout and economic muscle in coming years, forcing its neighbours and major powers to constantly recalibrate their strategic and foreign policies. In recent past, all of China’s neighbours have boosted their trade with China, but most of them are allying with the US on security issues. In the coming years, the US and India will be forging closer ties with Japan, South Korea, Australia, Myanmar, Vietnam, and other allies. The India-US strategic recalibration in the east is due to India’s inability to meet the challenge of China alone and the US’ search for new allies.
On economy, debt reduction and trade, Obama was widely criticised during the election season and can be expected to make some progress in these areas. Obama is also set to steer ahead the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free trade initiative seeking to establish American leadership in the wider Asia-Pacific region. The TPP framework includes the US, Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, Peru, Mexico and Vietnam. Along the road, it will draw US allies like Indonesia, the Philippines and India in its ambit, which will be in line with India’s Look East Policy.
However, on the question of key challenges — rise of Islamist forces across the Middle East and Iranian nuclear programme — it will be Obama’s liberal ideology that will determine the US response during next few years and is unlikely to make progress. Liberal politicians think of terrorists as thieves who can be handled by police. The consequence of such thinking is that terrorists can surprise us, as they killed US ambassador J Christopher Stevens in Benghazi on September 11 while US officials dithered for weeks to call it a terrorist attack. The US was hesitant on Libya, until the UK and France took the initiative against Muammar Gaddafi. Obama is coddling Egypt’s Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, who raised his hands in a recent prayer as Islamic cleric Futouh Abd al-Nabi Mansour uttered these words: “Oh Allah, destroy Jews and their supporters.” On Syria, the US policy is in shambles, but there are signs that the Obama administration is moving to arm some opposition groups against Bashar al-Assad.
Obama thought that he could release terrorists from Guantanamo Bay and bargain for peace, but many of them rejoined al-Qaeda. On Afghanistan, the US thought that the Taliban could be persuaded to share power in Kabul and it is believed to have offered the Taliban three Afghan provinces. However, true to their jihad, the Taliban refused to accept the Afghan constitution. It appears that Obama’s sole strategy on Islamic terrorism has been to hide behind drone attacks, but killing a few terrorists cannot be called a policy against the mushrooming Islamism across the Middle East, and also in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the Taliban and allied jihadi organisations are poised for an offensive after the US troop withdrawal in 2014.
Israel, a US ally, feels alienated. Israeli leader Ariel Sharon made a genuine bid for peace by withdrawing Israeli troops from Gaza in 2005. However, Gaza-based Hamas militants have fired rockets and mortars every day into Israel, about 20 per week this year. Obama has failed to work for peace in the Middle East. His toughest test may come on Iran. In violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which bars Iran from enriching uranium to over 5 per cent, Obama’s Iran policy has allowed Tehran to achieve the status of a nuclear threshold state, which means that, if such a status is recognised, Iran cannot be subject to sanctions. In a November 7 editorial on Obama’s victory, The Washington Post summed up these challenges: ‘Overseas, the Iranian nuclear program will pose a fateful challenge, possibly within months. Mr Obama will have to ensure that gains in Afghanistan and Iraq are not erased in the aftermath of US troop withdrawals. His dithering in Syria as 30,000 civilians have been massacred is a particular blot on his first-term record.’
Tufail Ahmad is Director of South Asia Studies Project at the Middle East Media Research institute, Washington DC