Reality mugs rhetoric

First Published: 2015-04-24

The world is left with the disorder that Mr Obama’s reliance on rhetoric rather than the robust action expected of a superpower has provoked

Recently the Pope declared that we are already in the midst of a "piecemeal World War III". Given that the United States remained the sole superpower after the implosion of the Soviet imperium in 1991, how has this come to pass?

The two former Communist imperial behemoths – China and Russia – are again challenging Western hegemony, including its values. The Middle East continues to be in turmoil, with the jihadi ISIS threatening to repeat the feats of the Prophet Mohammed and his successors in creating a new order in the region through a lightning military campaign – eventually conquering Mesopotamia, and establishing a medieval Salafi Caliphate enforcing Sharia law. Iran is seeking to establish its own Shia hegemony from Tehran to Beirut, and the Af-Pak badlands continue to be in turmoil.

The origins of this increasing disorder lie in part in the Great Recession of 2008 in the US, which has tarnished the purportedly free market-based capitalism of the West. An alternative authoritarian capitalism promoted by China and Russia is being claimed as more likely to deliver faster growth, as witnessed by the rising share of these countries in global gross domestic product (GDP) since the economic crisis of the West. In previous columns, I have discussed the validity of these claims and found them wanting.

It is the serious mistakes in maintaining the US’s role as the sole superpower under both the younger Mr Bush and Mr Obama which are largely to blame for the growing world disorder.

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the initial military campaigns were resoundingly successful, and showed how with the revolution in military affairs the US is an unmatched military power. But serious mistakes were made in maintaining and securing the peace. The resultant insurgencies required further expenditure of men and materiel to quell them. This has drastically reduced domestic support in the US for muscular military action.

In Iraq, after the counter-insurgency was quelled, much against the dire predictions of the time, relatively free elections have been held, and after a hiatus a multiethnic government was formed. But with Mr Obama’s haste in withdrawing all US troops, without an agreement (as planned by the Bush administration) to leave a residual force which could have acted as guarantor of a multiethnic state, Iraq has again descended into a civil war. This. with the ongoing one in Syria, threatens to create a Shia-versus-Sunni war across the Middle East, foretelling another battle of Karbala. Meanwhile, taking advantage of the Syrian civil war and the military vacuum left in Iraq, the jihadist ISIS has secured vast swathes of territory in northern Syria and large parts of Sunni Iraq to create its Islamic State.

In Afghanistan, after the surge in US troops in 2010, the Taliban had lost almost all its principal havens in southern Afghanistan; its ability to acquire, transport and use improvised explosive devices had been disrupted; and the ISAF was receiving the support of local populations in the fight against the Taliban. In 2011, "the momentum of the insurgency in the south has unquestionably been arrested and probably reversed" wrote Frederick W Kagan and Kimberly Kagan (Defining Success in Afghanistan, American Enterprise Institute). But Mr Obama made the most heinous mistake in dithering about the Afghan war in his West Point speech, authorising a troop surge, but stating all the troops would be out by 2012.

Though he has since backtracked, the lesson US adversaries have learnt was articulated by Hamid Gul, the notorious former head of Pakistan’s ISI, who said this "makes clear that the Taliban are Afghanistan’s future, and the Americans are its past" (www.memri.og, Special Dispatch 2895). It is this perception which has given heart to the Pakistan army in its Af-Pak strategy of asymmetric warfare against India, and clandestinely against the Afghan government. With Mr Obama’s commitment to withdraw most US troops by 2016, Mr Gul’s prediction is about to come true.

For, despite the seemingly difficult hand dealt him by the financial crisis, Mr Obama has compounded its seeming weakness in dealing with its superpower role through various missteps which have led to the impression of the US as a declining superpower. Mr Obama seems to have blinked so often in his time in office that it has worried friends and bolstered US rivals. (See James Mann, The Obamians, and Vali Nasr, The Dispensable Nation).

Why has this happened? A perceptive essay by James Traub (‘When did Obama give up?’ foreignpolicy.com/2015/02/26) provides some answers. Mr Obama has a rare gift of speech which, as he notes in his Dreams From My Father, he discovered when as an undergraduate he was asked to give a two-minute speech against the South African apartheid regime at Occidental College in Los Angeles, and all the people playing Frisbee on the lawn stopped to listen. "I noticed," he writes "that people had begun to listen to my opinions. It was a discovery that made me hungry for words. Not words to hide behind but words that could carry a message, support an idea." (p 105)

In his first term, Mr Obama gave many foreign policy speeches, based on idealism, to "choose", as he said, "to work for the world as it should be". He and his advisors believed that "the great issues confronting the United States were not traditional state-to-state questions, but new ones that sought to advance global goods and required global cooperation", and he saw himself, as he explained to Mr Traub, with "a grandmother living in a hut on Lake Victoria and a sister who’s half-Indonesian, married to a Chinese-Canadian", as destined to provide the leadership "needed to enlist the support of citizens as well as leaders".

He offered a new American narrative to audiences around the world in 2009 – including in Moscow, where Vladimir Putin must have laughed up his sleeve when he heard Mr Obama say "The pursuit of power is no longer a zero-sum game". But "to this day," Mr Traub says, "his world view is assessed on the single question of when and where he is prepared to use force".

Increasingly in his second term, this idealist president has been mugged by reality. He is now, says Mr Traub, "becalmed before a listless and surly public, an openly hostile and increasingly isolationist Congress, and a disintegrating order in the Middle East". The bright young man, whose face has become sallow, and hair turned to grey, who offered hope and change increasingly appears to be broken. "Obama’s trajectory is that of a gifted orator who learned over time that he had put too much store in speech itself." But, the world is left with the disorder that his reliance on rhetoric, rather than the robust action expected of a superpower has provoked.

First published at the Business Standard and posted here with the kind permission of the author.


Deepak Lal is the James S. Coleman Professor Emeritus of International Development Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, professor emeritus of political economy at University College London, and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He was a member of the Indian Foreign Service (1963-66) and has served as a consultant to the Indian Planning Commission, the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, various UN agencies, South Korea, and Sri Lanka. From 1984 to 1987 he was research administrator at the World Bank. Lal is the author of a number of books, including The Poverty of Development Economics; The Hindu Equilibrium; Against Dirigisme; The Political Economy of Poverty, Equity and Growth; Unintended Consequences: The Impact of Factor Endowments, Culture, and Politics on Long-Run Economic Performance; and Reviving the Invisible Hand: The Case for Classical Liberalism in the 21st Century.

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