Special Reports




As he approaches the 100 day mark, we now know three things about Barack Obama that were not clear before. First, he is a war president, not a peace president. Second he wants to reform capitalism, not to transform it. Third, he is almost as much on his own, struggling with a world which is hostile, indifferent, or simply seeking advantage, as was George W.Bush. Obama's style, elegance, and intelligence are obviously in marked contrast with his predecessor, and the quality of his advisors higher, and there is a warmth of feeling toward him in almost every quarter which is unprecedented since Kennedy. Yet the combination of the weight of the Bush legacy and the conservatism of Obama and his team means that he is mapping out his presidency along lines which show a strong continuity with the Bush years. The key question for the future is whether he will become more or less radical as that presidency develops.

A War President
When Obama outlined his plans for Iraq in February, he significantly chose to do so before a military audience. He spoke first to American soldiers because he knew he was not going to be announcing an end to their exposure to the dangers of combat but forecasting a considerable extension of it. His speech was supposedly about withdrawal, but it was in truth about nothing of the kind. Instead, it sketched out the wider war, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, which Obama has been honest enough to outline to the American people, and brave or foolhardy enough to take on. The speech did indeed contain details of a progressive reduction in the number of American troops in Iraq, but on a longer timetable than Obama had envisaged when campaigning, and with caveats and conditions which could lead to further delays. Even though 2011 is supposedly the date for full withdrawal, few of the soldiers and diplomats involved imagine this will prove to be a real cut-off point, instead envisaging American troops continuing, if in smaller numbers, in Iraq for many years beyond that.

In taking his Iraq decisions Obama has been a prisoner of the surge, the injection of extra troops which, along with the raising and arming of Sunni militias, shifted the political and military balance in Iraq in 2007 and 2008, although how decisively we cannot yet know. When Obama first formulated his views on what should be the end game in Iraq, the war was being lost, and many American politicians were coming to the conclusion that the best thing would be to depart and leave the country to sink or swim on its own. But the surge, initially widely derided, opened up the possibility that a sort of success, even a sort of victory, might after all be possible in Iraq. It is this possibility that Obama has been almost forced to embrace, even though he must know that such a "success" is both a distant and an uncertain prospect. Thomas E. Ricks, the author of the best book on the surge (1), concludes his account by saying that "no matter how the war ends it appears today we may be only halfway through it", and that "the events for which the Iraq war will be remembered probably have not yet happened."

Obama's hand has been forced not only in Iraq, but on a much larger and more frightening scale in Afghanistan and Pakistan. When Obama first began to call for an intensified effort in Afghanistan, the conflict in that country was seen as much more manageable than that in Iraq. Afghanistan had been neglected, it was believed, but it could be rescued, perhaps quite easily rescued. It was the same sort of understanding which led the British military, at about the same time, to argue for a withdrawal from the impossible war in Iraq in order to pay concentrated attention to the winnable war in Afghanistan. Yet what Obama and others overlooked at that stage was that the war was spreading into Pakistan, hitherto seen only as a difficult country which sometimes helped and sometimes hindered the Afghanistan effort. In fact, Pakistan was becoming a battlefield, one in which the United States had neither the ability or the will to directly engage but which it still had to strive to influence. The winnable little war in Afghanistan had become a complex and dangerous cross-border conflict in two countries. What was certain was that no success would endure in Afghanistan unless the Pakistanis, with or without American help, dealt with their own insurgencies. Even if Afghanistan could be halfway settled, a breakdown in Pakistan, a far larger country and one with nuclear weapons, would be a bigger threat than even the worst developments imaginable in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. Obama's commendable readiness to reduce America's stocks of nuclear weapons in concert with other nuclear armed states, as he said himself, is related more to the growing dangers of proliferation, including the possibility of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists, than it is to the now wholly unrealistic prospect of a nuclear exchange between established powers. The North Korean satellite launch in early April underlined that danger, for North Korea is a proliferator of nuclear weapons technology rather than a believable nuclear aggressor against another state.

In General David Petraeus, head of Central Command, and Richard Holbrooke, special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama has two unusually able advisors. They and Obama undoubtedly believe that better diplomacy in the region at large, and civic action in the conflict countries, which the Bush administration often neglected or even derided, have an important part to play. But these are a vital complement rather than a substitute for hard power. In the long run, if Obama's overtures to Iran and Syria were to prove successful, and if Israel could be pushed into meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians, there would presumably be a beneficial effect on how those conflicts play out. But we have yet to learn how soft the Obama administration is going to be with Iran and how tough it is going to be with Israel. In both cases there could be more continuity with the failed policies of the past than some Obama supporters, both inside and outside America, hope. Iran and the United States are engaged in serious covert action against each other, while Israel, up to now with American support, is always in potential conflict with Hizbollah and Hamas in Lebanon and Gaza. These are in fact two further fronts in the larger Middle Eastern war. Obama wants to shut them down, and appears to be ready to go further than Bush in trying to do so. Whether he is ready to give enough or shove enough, is another question. At this point in his presidency, in other words, from Gaza to Lahore, peace is an aspiration, and a multi-front war in the Middle East and South West Asia the unhappy reality.

A Reforming President, not a Revolutionary President
Three important factors have constrained Obama in his approach to the economic crisis. The first is ignorance, the second the need to prop up the very business elite which caused the crisis, the third is fear of the word "socialism" and of what that word represents to Americans who, for all their anger at bankers, are nevertheless still steeped in the dominant market ideology of our era. Ignorance is the common condition of leaders across the world as they face problems which are new both in nature and scale. Nobody, in any country, really knows how to get their economies moving again, or how to dispose of the mass of toxic "assets" which decades of irresponsible manipulation of the markets have created. Obama's administration has chosen to emphasise fiscal stimulus, borrowing large sums to get people lending and spending again. The spending will also sustain important social programmes, notably a reform of the American health system. Some of his critics at home think the stimulus is too small, while some of his critics both at home and abroad think it too large. But everybody is guessing. What Obama has been good at, nevertheless, is projecting confidence, the sense that somebody intelligent and reactive is in charge. This was, for instance, his most important contribution to the recent meeting of the G-20 nations. While the co-ordination of different national policies there was in fact very ragged, Obama managed, with some help from Gordon Brown. to create a reassuring atmosphere. Since confidence is the most important currency in an economic crisis this is an achievement that should not be underestimated.

The need to retain confidence is one reason why Obama has entrusted the direction of economic policy to men and women from the American business elite, including former bankers who were until recently were dealing in the very securities which blew up the financial system, regulators who were until recently ignoring the risks those securities represented, and managers who were running American industry in ways which, it now seems obvious, were unsustainable. The arguments in America about nationalisation are, at bottom, about whether the higher business class can be trusted to reform itself. Obama faces a degree of popular anger at financiers and corporate managers which is much greater than that in Britain and Europe, and yet public opinion is not in favour of "socialistic" measures. The American middle class, combining professionals, workers, and small and middle sized businessmen, is perhaps at this stage more interested in revenge than regulation. Obama's choices so far, of both personnel and policies, suggest he has no intention of seriously disrupting the balance of power in American society, or of limiting the continual interchange between the economically and the politically influential which is at the heart of the American system. He is clearly going to put back in place the regulatory framework which American business managed, with the help of successive administrations from that of Ronald Reagan onwards, to largely dismantle. And some banks and failing car companies may be bullied into reducing the salaries and bonuses of their executives. But Obama has to date not directly addressed the larger problem of inequality in American society or suggested, for instance, that it is not only the pay of unsuccessful executives which should be curbed but that of successful ones as well. He has not yet looked forward to what may happen if, when banks do start to lend, raiders begin using borrowed money to once again hijack established companies, proceeding to pay off their loans by sacking workers, selling assets, and running down pension funds. Banks must begin lending again, that is a given. But what should the lending be for? Obama has not yet, to put it another way, looked at whether American capitalism needs to be transformed rather than merely reformed. 

In one area it looks as if Obama is looking for more fundamental change, and that is in the relationship between an indebted United States and the countries which supply it with goods which in truth America cannot afford, or can only afford because the exporting nations stash their profits in American government bonds. The dependent relationship between China and America, in which China's growth is fed by America's debt, is the most glaring example. Constant emphasis on the need to maintain the principles of free trade and steer clear of protectionism conceals the fact that most governments, very much including that of the United States, believe that world trading relations are badly skewed. China's anxiety at the prospect that in the future, even after recovery, America will find ways of buying significantly smaller quantities of Chinese goods was evident in the run up to the G-20 meeting. Obama's welcome emphasis on ecology may also shape future trade policy. Manufacturing which pollutes Chinese air and rivers, then uses scarce fuel to get the product to the American -- or European -- market, where it undercuts local industry and employment, does not make ecological or social sense. Whether there could be a kind of "managed protectionism" is one of the hard questions for the future. But it seems likely that Obama will at some stage try to dig America out of its unhealthy trading relationships. 

A Lonely President
The goodwill, admiration, and respect widely felt for Obama has not translated into any great readiness to heed his appeals, grant his requests, or share his aspirations. At home, the Republican party has spurned his efforts to be bipartisan, ignored his readiness to include Republicans on his team, and resisted his argument that the emergency is so great that all must pull together for the good of the country. They seem intent on painting him as a wastrel, a socialist or even a communist, and as a man who has already exposed the country to a greater risk of terrorist attack than under Bush. This last is a particular specialty of former vice-president Richard Cheney. Although Obama avoids the intemperate rhetoric of the Bush team, he has dismantled little of the country's new security architecture, and is pursuing most of the former administration's policies abroad, while at the same trying to render them more coherent. Yet the Republican party hard core will have none of it. The wider constituency of Republican voters, as opposed to registered Republicans, may, polls suggest, take a different and much more sympathetic view. But in purely party terms, America is more polarised under Obama than under Bush, and he faces an opposition in the legislature determined to obstruct and undermine him.

Abroad, Obama's problem is that there is almost no support for his policies in the Greater Middle East, and less than complete support for his proposals to deal with the economic crisis. The view of his Nato allies is that war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan is an American responsibility. Americans set off this spiral of interlinked conflicts, so let them unwind it, if it can be unwound. That seems to be the underlying point of view. There is an assymetry here that Obama himself does not, at least publicly, recognise. He conceives his mission as pulling the United States out of the mess which earlier administrations created in the region, and restoring American power and influence in the process. The US armed forces are concerned about their own prestige, and the American public at large is ready to make some, although not endless, sacrifices. The other Nato countries have far less at stake, far less faith in a successful outcome, and far, far less readiness to absorb casualties. This is the reason why Obama's pleas at the recent Nato summit fell on politely deaf ears. He secured a few troops for the coming elections in Afghanistan, but no serious permanent commitments except perhaps from Britain. Outside the ranks of America's close allies, the attitude toward US policy in the Greater Middle East ranges from the actively hostile to the simply watchful. This latter group will wait to see what events bring, and what dangers or opportunities that will present for them. This applies to countries like India, China, and especially Russia. Russia's appetite for American failure is not unlimited, but it sees opportunities to reassert itself in Central Asia and Europe that American weakness will allow it to exploit. The best guess is that Moscow will continue to respond to Obama's overtures -- including his readiness to reconsider missile deployments in Eastern Europe, his broader disarmament proposals, and his requests for more co-operation on Iran -- in a reasonable but also a prevaricating way. They will not be repudiated but they will not be taken up with vigour or speed. Moscow will wait out the Iran game, in particular, without putting its full weight on the scales.

On the economic front, Obama faces a world which is inclined to blame "Anglo-American" capitalism for the crisis, downplaying the fact that every major economy was complicit in it to some extent. This allows politicians to present themselves as fighting the crisis but not responsible for it, and taps into anti-American feeling. It is allied with a reluctance to embrace to the full extent the stimulus measures on which the United States wanted the world to agree. At its most cynical this amounts to a readiness to see the United States go massively into debt to energise its economy, while hoping to benefit from the resulting expansion of American demand to refloat their own economies without having paid anything like as high a price in public spending. But it can more reasonably be seen as arising from natural caution and from different national attitudes toward debt, as is certainly the case with Germany. Whatever the reason the result is a world which is reluctant to do America's bidding.

Before Obama's inauguration, it was commonplace to point out the extraordinarily difficult challenges he would face as president, and to forecast that, if any man could overcome them, he was that man. Now, three months or so into his first year, that opinion would not change as to the difficulties, except that they now seem even greater, or on his character, except to say that it is still unclear whether Obama sees himself as restoring the American system more or less as it was before Bush or as a man who will go down in history as having fundamentally changed it. Meanwhile we have the paradox of a man who is liked and even in a way loved by the world, but who does not command it.

Martin Woollacott

(1) The Gamble. Thomas E. Ricks. Allen Lane, London, 2009

Comments are invited at our Blog www.geopolemics.com