Barack Obama: high ambitions, harsh realities
Weekly Pulse
Feb 26-Mar 4, 2010
The November 2008 election of Barack Obama as President was perceived and celebrated in America and the world as a revolutionary event. American and global expectations from him were, therefore, equally revolutionary. However, in the last over a year in office, the Obama presidency is nowhere near the expected revolutionary outcomes in domestic politics or foreign policy. As a first African American leader hailing from humble origins, and one whose election campaign was based on the slogan of “change” and the catchphrase of “yes, we can,” Obama pledged to fight ‘special interests’ in Washington and reform the country’s political system in ways that none of his recent predecessors could ever do. There is no doubt that the economic recovery program the Obama Administration initiated soon after entering office is succeeding, as clear from significant fall in unemployment rate, impressive growth in industrial productivity and relative stability of the fiscal system.

President Obama’s major bet was to completely overhaul the American healthcare system—since, unlike socially-driven Canadian or European healthcare systems , its benefits do not extend to the most unprivileged sections of society. That is why the Obama presidency came up with a radical healthcare plan, which was tabled before the Congress last year. The ensuing debate on the issue in the House of Representatives and the Senate, however, sharpened the political divide in the United States, pitting Democrats against Republicans and even creating rifts among President Obama’s own Democratic Party members.

Healthcare Backlash

The recent loss of a Senate seat to the Republicans in Massachusetts meant that only a radically revised healthcare reforms package than the one President Obama had originally proposed could now be realised through a grand compromise between the Democrats and the Republicans. This is what is happening now, as delegates from the two parties were invited by the White House to a presumablly bipartisan summit to sort out differences on the impending issue. In the new significantly toned-down healthcare package, there are provisions to widen the scope of healthcare benefits and regulate the business of private health insurance companies, but the originally intended target of extending complete health coverage to the millions of unprivileged Americans who simply cannot afford health facilities on their own has now been effectively shed.

The healthcare issue is one symbolic example of President Obama’s failure to do what he intended to, or was expected of, as a young charismatic leader with a lot of good ideas. In fact, the debate on healthcare reforms, as it has evolved overtime without producing the intended outcome, seems to have demoralised President Obama to the extent that the sort of impact in public opinion his powerful discourse initially had might have significantly eroded. His speeches, mostly done through teleprompter, are no more as impressive as before and after he had taken over as President. His eyes, as much of his rivals, are now on mid-term congressional elections later this year.

Thus, for a revolutionary figure like him, in the end, it has come down to playing politics, winning over political supporters, even from amongst his own party. The healthcare issue did provide an opportunity to the Republicans to be on the offensive, with former Vice President Dick Chenney recently declaring at a party convention that President Obama does not stand to “win a second term.”

Racial Undertones

It is true that President Obama inherited an economy from the Bush Administration that was already in recession due to the global financial crisis. Still the Republicans and other critics question the argument that he consistently makes to blame his predecessor for all the problems confronting his administration. Instead, they argue, the President should overcome his own failures in governance.

However, among his mass African American supporters , the wider thinking is that the main reason why there is so much opposition to the domestic policies President Obama wants to implement is simply because he is black. In other words, had there been a white leadership from the Democratic party, the nationwide controversy over healthcare reforms might not have generated so much friction in politics and public opinion as it did in recent months.

In retrospect, the troubled racial history of America does not seem to fade away, even after civil rights reforms of 1960s and the rise to presidency of an African American forty years later. Politics aside, by and large, the traditionally politically apathetic American public remains embroiled in what might have been non-issues elsewhere, such as Tiger Woods’ recent fall from grace. The young golf legend has been the focus of media frenzy since the scandal involving his mistresses was unearthed a few months ago. Last week, he sought forgiveness on TV from his family, friends and fans for a conduct unbecoming of an iconic figure in golf and a family man with crave for privacy.

Unlike the general perception about America across the world, the Americans are very touchy about family values. The issue of a public figure having mistresses in Europe, for instance, might not have generated as much criticism and controversy as Tiger Woods’ infatuations with porn stars did. In the 24/7 media debate on the issue, however, there are those who sympathise with him, arguing that this is a matter between him and his Swedish wife to sort out, that such things can happen when a global celebrity is aloof from the life people generally live, and that the golf star must be given a chance to return to the course as soon as his rehab program finishes.

Beyond the politics over healthcare and the controversy over Tiger Woods, life goes on in the United States. In New Orleans, for instance, where I attended the recently-concluded International Studies Association (ISA) Convention, it is remarkable to see how quickly the city has recovered from complete devastation from Hurricane Katrina a few years ago. Like the Netherlands, New Orleans is located below the sea level, with a lot of ravines stretching across the Louisiana state’s coastal area and a canal cutting across its capital. In the end, however, what matters is the resilience of the people to overcome tragedies such as Katrina. “We will forgive Katrina but not forget but not forget its victims,” states a mural carved in black on a wall of the city close to the city’s Superdome.

Reshaping Foreign Policy

As for the revolutionary outcome of the November 2008 US elections and not-so-revolutionary outcome of the policies Obama Administration has pursued so far, the picture looks more prromising in the domain of US foreign policy. President Obama has, indeed, made a difference in reshaping American conduct in world affairs, and the policies his administration has pursued for the purpose are quite different from those of President Bush. Take, for instance, the case of Afghanistan, on which I spoke at the recent ISA convention in New Orleans.

Afghanistan is once again in danger of falling a prey to the same heinous process that began with the withdrawal of Soviet troops—from the intra-Afghan fighting and a regional proxy war, to the Taliban in government providing safe haven to al-Qaeda and the terror events of 9/11, culminating in the last over eight years of war. Afghanistan, South Asia and the world can ill afford the repeat of the same deadly process. Perhaps that is why what President Obama says or does in ensuing months matters the most.

The Obama Administration has come up with new creative options to resolve the Afghan conflict and combat terrorism in the region. Reintegrating insurgents and reconciling their leaders, if they are willing to lay down arms and join the political process, are innovative steps which have a promising outcome. The current intensification in US-led operations in Helmand is also indirectly aimed to achieve the same end, apart from extending Afghan governance to territories hitherto in the hands of Taliban.

The new US strategy for winning the war in Afghanistan has four goals: Clear, hold, build and transfer. The last one is aimed to let the Afghans themselves assume security responsibility of their country so that international troops should start to withdraw from the country from the summer of next year onwards. The strategy, being supervised by the commander of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), US General Stanley McChrystal, places due emphasis upon reinforcing Afghan government authority in troubled areas as soon as they are liberated from Taliban control, such as Marjah in Helmand, where the counter-insurgency campaign currently concentrates.

As part of a comprehensive approach that entails development, reconstruction and rehabilitation of the formerly insurgent-held areas, a quick provision of public services as soon as the military operations end is considered as a pivotal counter-insurgency tool. And then there are strict rules of engagement for air strikes to prevent the loss of civilian lives, one expression of which was the recent apology that General McChrystal offered directly to Afghan people when a NATO airstrike killed 12 Afghan civilians in Uruzgan province.

However, it is yet to be seen whether the new strategy that Obama Administration is trying in Afghanistan or the region will succeed or not. Given the underlying public preference in America for domestic issues, the emerging mood in the United States is to “get out of Afghanistan,” as Stephen Walt of the J F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, and the co-author of a recent international best selllerThe Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, told me at the ISA convention in New Orleans. He and his colleague Joseph S Nye, Jr., the architect of the popular “soft power” thesis in the discipline of International Relations, were part of a panel on the importance of Blogosphere in foreign policy scholarship, in which pros and cons of the issue were extensively debated.

Discouraging Factors

Unlike the case in the United States, the charm that President Obama enjoys internationally has not faded altogether. In June last year, he spoke exclusively to over 1.3 billion Muslim people across the world, accepting the right of a country like Iran to have a peaceful nuclear program and taking Israelis to task for jeopardising Palestinian peace process by building Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territories.

In fact, as soon as President Obama took over in January last year, he had extended an olive branch to Iran’s revolutionary leadership. Yet the emerging trend in US-Iran relations, especially after last summer’s elections in Iran marred by mass protests and state purges, is one of continuing conflict. Now even the international nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, has confirmed that Tehran may be developing a nuclear warhead. If Iran’s conduct during Obama Presidency has any lesson to learn, it is that no matter how much willing the leader of a great power is to reach out to a recalcitrant leadership doesn’t really matter in the end. For the very political survival of President Mahmoud Ahmadenijad and Ayatollah Khamenei, the real power wielder in Tehran,really rests on keeping Iran on a collision course with America.

On the issue of global terrorism, President Obama confronts a similar dilemma. Last time when I was in the United States to attend another annual convention of ISA in New York city in February last year, it had only been a month since the inaugural ceremony of President Obama on January 20. At panels discussing terrorism, scholars adhering to liberal school of thought seemed excited about the fact that the post-neo-conservative American leadership’s discourse did not reflect the same assumptions upon which Bush Administration’s war-prone policies in the War on Terror were based.

In his inaugural speech, President Obama did not use the “War on Terror” expression, pledged to disband Guantanamo Bay and forbid the practice of torture on suspected terrorists. All of this was taken as a manifestation of the start of a new era in international counter-terrorism. There is no doubt that President Obama has followed through on many of these pledges. After all, the alleged 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad will now face a civilian trial in New York city.

But, then, just like the continued hawkishness of Iran’s revolutionary leaders, the global terrorist threat that al-Qaeda poses refuses to go away. Certainly, after the foiled terrorist bid on the Christmas eve, we saw a different Obama when he spoke in the same language has his predecessor did—admitting that direct threat to the United States from this terror network did exist, and expressing his resolve to take whatever steps necessary to tackle it. And, now, we have this young American of Afghan descent, Najibullah Zazi, pleading guilty in a Brooklyn court for attemting to undertake a martyrdom operation in the New York subway on the eve of 9/11 anniversary last year.

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