Those in the Obama movement who thought that his presidency would usher in a new era in US foreign policy from Latin America to China to Iran are now up against it.
At every turn the reality of taking over the heights of US power are becoming clear. If you do not have the intention of dismantling the global US imperial structure, in all its military, political and financial forms then you are stuck trying to manage it.
Thus, in Iran Obama found himself unable to speak out in favor of the popular uprising there because he had committed himself, naively, to “engagement” with an illegitimate and deeply unpopular fundamentalist dictatorship. Iran now looks more like Chile under Pinochet and the recent “discovery” of a new nuclear facility only highlights the aggressive regional aims of the Iranian mullahs.
Since Obama has no realistic way to help the democratic movement he, instead, is now shifting to a war path together with Britain and France to ramp up pressure on the regime. That will only reinforce the regime’s argument with the population that there is no compromise with the west thus undermining the popular democratic movement.
Meanwhile, Obama’s “good war” is going bad, and fast. Obama sold his peacenik soul to get elected by arguing that he would ramp down Iraq and ramp up Afghanistan. The American public, including sections of the antiwar movement, bought it.
But the problem is the choice he made was based on a mistaken theory. The theory was that Afghanistan is largely a potential haven for Al Qaeda and therefore we have to defeat the resurgent Taliban in order to deny terrorists an expanded haven.
In fact, it turns out, the Taliban of today is far different than the Taliban that took over in the wake of the Soviet defeat. They are a motley crew probably incapable of controlling the national government in any coherent way and thus Afghanistan will remain a weak and problematic country for decades. This makes the country far less useful to Al Qaeda than it might appear since instead of having one powerful warlord like Mullah Omar to corrupt in order to build a secure strong hold they would need to satisfy dozens. That is likely beyond the capability of bin Laden.
More importantly, while Obama makes noise about crossing into Pakistan to go after Taliban or Qaeda forces, he leaves out what is essential about the Pakistan connection: historically Pakistan has supported the Taliban in order to at least neutralize Afghanistan so that it gave Pakistan lebensraum.
Concretely, of course, Pakistan needs access to trading routes and a critical natural gas pipeline that run through Afghanistan. More broadly, Pakistan is locked into a near permanent confrontation with India in the east and does not want a new independent Afghanistan to have to deal with in the west.
A genuinely progressive and independent US foreign policy would be looking for ways to solve the Indo-Pakistan conflict and to provide Pakistan alternatives that undermine those in its security apparatus who protect the Taliban and Qaeda. Why not a global trade regime that offers real assistance to countries like Pakistan so that they are not forced to export soccer balls stitched together by children? Children who, then, might not view madrassas as a way out of a miserable existence?
So Obama is now stuck in a very serious paradox – he ran and won with a naively simple minded message and just as the 2010 election season begins to take off he is faced with the reality of a far more complex world.
More importantly the antiwar left which collapsed and largely voted for Obama now must realize where he is headed – to a full throated new form of the Cold War, this time in conflict with fundamentalism if not China and Russia.