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Being Good Is Not Enough

May 27, 2009

 CHANGE – the one big word that catapulted Barack Obama to the White House will come to haunt America. While Obama went to great lengths to try and explain as to what kind of change he had in mind there is only so much that one can get out of a potential candidate in the heat of a presidential campaign. Evidently, not enough questions were asked. Change is what America has got because that is what they wanted. I must concede that Obama and his team have not done badly at all as far as tackling the recession is concerned. The huge dosage of funds into the markets seems to have propped them up just a bit, but to say that the recession is over is overlooking some basic facts. We are not there, not as yet, as far as the markets are concerned.  The President is candid enough to admit the fact.

Obama is a nice guy. He believes that the world is going crazy trying to run one another down. He wants to change things. Look, I never said the guy wasn’t honest in his intentions. It’s just that he has taken the slogan of CHANGE that he floated, way too seriously.  Look at his Iran policy. His conciliatory overtures have been taken by the Ahmedinijad regime as a sign of weakness and Tehran has hardened its stand vis-à-vis the West. Instead of trying to put some pressure on Tehran, Obama is trying to rope in the Russians in the hope that Moscow will stop all help to Tehran in its quest for nuclear weapons. And pray, how does he go about it – by promising that NATO will not install the missile shield in Eastern Europe if Moscow checks Tehran from going ahead with the nuclear program. It looks like a naive approach to a problem that may mean serious security concerns for the whole of Middle East and parts of Europe. For one, how can it be ensured that Russia is not helping Tehran develop nuclear weapons? A clandestine transfer of technology through a third party is a distinct possibility. Do we take the word of the Russians? Will that be enough? And what does NATO get in return – a vulnerable Europe? The installation of the missile shield is a very physical thing, something that can easily be verified. Is there a mechanism to verify that Russians have stopped all aid to Tehran? I think not. And are the Russians the only ones helping Tehran with their nuclear program? Is Beijing not a player in this equation? Is North Korea not another potential source?  How much will the US offer the North Koreans to stop help to Tehran? The missile tests by Iran point to a collusion with the Koreans and the Chinese. Russia may not be as active as the other two. Pyongyang may be doing this only for economic reasons but Beijing believes that one way to keep the West engaged in the Middle East is to prop up regimes like the one in Tehran that has been a thorn in the side of the West for long. The Chinese have been colluding with rogue Islamic organizations for long whether it is in the Philippines, Pakistan, Darfur or the Middle East. How many sops will Obama throw at the various players in this game? It seems to be an impractical approach to a problem that has global ramifications. My fear is that Tel Aviv might lose patience with Washington and launch an attack on Iran and try and find a military solution on its own. That would spell disaster not only for the West but for the world at large.

Russia went on an offensive right after Obama was declared the winner in the presidential race. They conducted naval exercises off the Gulf of Mexico with their ally Cuba. Soon after Obama’s coronation President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin roared that the US should refrain from installing the missile defense shield in Eastern Europe. Russia is a shadow of its former Soviet days. Their incursion into Georgia was a manifestation of their aggressive intent in their neighborhood.  Russia stopped the supply of gas to Europe and people as far as Germany felt the ire of Moscow, denied of this precious resource that keeps Europe warm in winters.  Russia has now unveiled plans to develop missiles that can challenge the west. Obama is offering conciliatory gestures to a nation throwing its weight around. I wouldn’t call Obama a peacenik, that would almost be un-parliamentary, but he does seem to live in a world of his own. He is trying to reason with a people that blame the west for all their ills. Russians, at least those on the radical extreme left, still believe that it was the west that was responsible for the disintegration of the Soviet Union and fall of the Berlin wall. They see the west as a threat to Russian interests. While they concede that the communist economic model was a failure and have embraced the more efficient western model they have made sure that such companies that have strategic value remain in indirect control of the Kremilin.  The way one of the richest Russians was thrown into prison was a pointer to the fact that democracy in Russia is also typically Russian and has nothing to do with the western style of democracy. Okay, so it was about the control of oil major Lukoil, but democracy was still a casualty. Russia is clinging on to its strategic assets without any apology.  I concede that the West was also cagey about letting go Unocal to the Chinese but the fact remains that the Russian grizzly is feeling encircled and one knows how dangerous a scared bear is. Obama’s assurances to the bear may have the opposite effect and instead of getting friendly the bear might become more aggressive trying to find food for the long winter that lies ahead. It is better to tackle even a scared grizzly with a torch than to try and make friends with him.  But this grizzly is scared no more and believes he has a pliable prey that he can devour on. That is hugely dangerous.

Obama is a man of his words.  But what if one finds that the promises that one made during the election meetings were impractical or detrimental to the national interests once one assumes office?  Obama said that the US would withdraw from Iraq in 16 months after he assumes office. He has tried to keep his promise. The difference is that complete withdrawal would be possible only in 2014. The British have already gone back – well, most of them. They were loath to stay back in the inhospitable land once they knew of the American plans. Since the announcement, which was greeted with loud cheers by the men in uniform, there has been a rise in violence in Iraq, especially in Baghdad. I can understand the concern of the average American and the high cost of sustaining a military presence in a land thousands of miles away from home.  But one must understand as to why the US went there in the first place. The strategic resource that will define the way the world goes in the decades to come is right now at their disposal. After thirty five long years western companies have had access to the world’s second largest oil cache. Oil is only going to get scarce. Must one let go what one has got after so much sweat and tears quite so easily? That is the economic side of the story. The political ramifications are even worse. Violence has started on the announcement of an American withdrawal. The Kurds in the north have found peace after a long time. Halabja still haunts them. Arbil is a hub of economic activity, the ‘other Iraq’ as it is called. The Kurds are unsure about their future now. The Shias in the south are bracing themselves for a showdown with the Sunnis in the west. Iran is not sitting idle. Peace in Iraq is a mirage without American presence. General Petreaus had brought a sense of stability to this volatile region. To be fair to the Iraqis the mess was also the making of the west. Saddam ruled with an iron fist but far fewer people lost their lives during his regime. Now it’s a civil war like situation. The new president in Washington must keep his word. If Iraq faces anarchy, well, so be it. America cannot afford to lose any more men. Obama says that there will be some American forces stationed in Iraq to secure American interests (read oil wells). How can one secure ones assets when the country is facing chaos? And will this not embolden Iran? The West was talking of containing Iran. An abrupt withdrawal from Iraq will mean giving the precious oil wells in the Shia majority south to Iran on a platter. John McCain was just being honest when he said that he would not budge from Iraq in a thousand years. It made Americans worried about the safety of their loved ones. What John McCain did not elaborate was that he would ensure that there is relative peace in Iraq. General Petreaus and his men showed that Iraq was manageable. And when things had calmed down came the Obama insistence on withdrawal and all hell broke loose. The fact is that Americans and the allied forces had found their way in the deserts of Middle East after much effort. And when they had the country in relative order, they are coming back leaving a flaming state that was also strategically important. They had a direct foothold in the Middle East, and not a proxy presence a la Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The world had come to terms with American presence in Iraq as had the Iraqis. This will be the first time America would withdraw from a country they had entered, and perhaps the most important one. The chaos they leave behind will endear no one in the Middle East and there may be more Mohammad Ata’s bracing up to attack the ‘evil empire’. Americans went there to fight the non-existent al-Quaeda, what they have achieved is exactly the opposite. They have created al-Quaeda where there was none.  America and the west are more vulnerable now than ever. The reason being that they are shying away from taking responsibility for a nation they entered. This is worse than the original sin of entering another country without any provocation.  At the end of it, this just does not make sense.

The first order of President Obama was to close the Guantanamo Bay prison where many under-trials are put up. This was done with a flourish and confidence that only a rookie president could muster. People cheered. They did not realise that once Guantanamo closes down the inmates there will need to be shifted. There are some high security prisons where such high risk inmates could be housed. But then they will have to be tried in civil courts. Such an arrangement may be inadequate. One would have expected the new administration to have thought of what they would do with the Guantanamo prisoners. Evidently, this crucial order was passed post haste. 

Obama is trying to do things his own way. His Af-Pak policy is focused on getting Osama bin Laden and Mulla Omar and then getting out of Afghanistan. For this he is giving billions of dollars to Pakistan. What he does not understand is that Osama or his ghost means billions of dollars to an economically tottering Pakistan and a dead Osama is of no use. The spread of the Taliban helped by the ISI is the real threat. And the monster is moving east. The Pakistan army may try and drive them out for the time being but the radicalization of the Pakistan society is the real threat. Taliban will find succor in the fact that they could manage such radicalism to grow in Pakistan which they hope to take over sooner rather than later. The solution to this problem is to make Pakistan free of nuclear weapons.  Pakistan may collapse sooner than many think. The army is divided on ethnic lines. Pakistan still does not have the technology and whatever nuclear stockpile that they have is a largess from their friends up north. China needs to be taken into confidence. It will take a tough man to make such a decision and to carry it out. Expecting the present administration in Washington to take such hawkish stand and to go through it will be asking too much. It is true that like Bush, Obama refrains from bracketing India and Pakistan together and he said as much when he told the Pakistan delegation that Pakistan does not face any threat from the East but from extreme elements from within. The guy knows the region very well and has refused to give money to Islamabad blindly. The ‘good Taliban’ and ‘bad Taliban’ approach was a no brainer, though. Feeding a monster won’t make it benign. And let us not forget that almost a quarter of the Pakistan army is made up of Pashtuns. How far such an army can fight its own people is a question that needs to be asked.  The west will come to the conclusion sooner or later, that Pakistan is an unstable country and that such a country cannot be allowed to have nuclear weapons.  If Obama does what is the obvious solution, he will have to make a tectonic shift in the way his administration is approaching the various issues that confront them. His ability to take others along will come handy. The Chinese however, won’t like the prospect of a benign Pakistan and will try to pull the leavers. It will need a lot of cajoling and a bit of arm-twisting.  Obama is too busy trying to belong and make the right noises – getting the approval of all and sundry, to be able to do that.  

China is another story. They have a foreign exchange reserve of almost two trillion. Majority of which is in US treasury bonds. What if they decide to sell a major chunk of it? The dollar will tumble. The American way of life is being subsidized by the Chinese. Hillary Clinton visited China recently. One of the main items on her agenda was to persuade the Chinese to buy some more of their treasury bills. The massive rescue plan of the Obama administration to bail out the economy from recession means the need for more resources. China could help the US. How can the US use its leverage with a country they are looking to bail them out. So Iran must be handled with kids gloves. A consensus must be reached. Russian-Chinese relations are on an upswing. Bush tried to encircle both China and Russia. Obama is finding that the US and the EU are being taken for granted both by the Chinese and the Russians. Europeans don’t want to brave the wretched cold in winters – they must cuddle the bear. The US wants to fight the economic downturn and must ride the dragon through the crisis. Your intentions are good Mr. President. The real world is an inhospitable place. Keep your powder dry. And use it from time to time to keep the wolves at bay. Many a civilizations have perished, trying to be civil in this crazy world. Remember the Greeks, the Persians? CHANGE was a good slogan. You may have to change a bit.

Update 25.06.2009: There have been two bomb attacks, one in Nasiriya and another in Sadr City. More than 150 people have died in these attacks. These are two of the most vicious attacks in recent months. It is a well known fact that the Americans are leaving. It is a matter of months now. What Washington does not seem to understand is that there can be no void in any country. Why should Iraq be any different? The militia are bracing themselves up and are ready to move in once theAmericans are gone. There could be a free-for-all if there is no exit strategy. The media is downplaying the violence as they can see the mood of the American people – they want to get out as soon as they can. Ask an Iraqi on the streets of Baghdad and he will tell you as to how worried he is about what might happen to his country. An unstable Iraq may be very dangerous for the whole of the Middle East. 

9th of July, 2009: MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – Bombs in Baghdad and northern Iraq killed at least 41 people and wounded more than 80 on Thursday, police said, just over a week after U.S. troops handed security in city centers to local forces. Two suicide attacks in Tal Afar, a town 420 km (260 miles) northwest of Baghdad that is mainly home to minority Turkmen, killed 34 people and wounded 60. One suicide bomber detonated an explosives vest, followed by another suicide attack just as people responded to the first, said a police official in Nineveh province, where groups like al Qaeda have taken advantage of tensions between Sunni Arabs and ethnic Kurds to maintain a campaign of violence.

In Baghdad, seven people were killed and 20 were wounded by two bomb blasts in a market in Sadr City, a poor, Shi’ite Muslim area of the Iraqi capital.Police said both bombs had been placed among rubbish piles in the popular Sadr City market. Reuters Television footage showed the blood-stained interior of a minivan damaged in the attack.The bloodshed following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 has dropped sharply, but ethnically and religiously mixed Nineveh province in Iraq’s north is still wracked by violence.

There has been a steady drumbeat of attacks in the city, many of them targeting Iraqi police and soldiers, since U.S. combat troops withdrew from urban centres on June 30.

The oil blocks that were on auction recently and were televised live did not seen any eager takers, except for one. The only reason that the western companies are still inclined to enter Iraq is their fear that the Russian and the Chinese state sponsored oil companies will move in. The other reason is that extracting oil in Iraq is very easy and the cost is only a few dollars per barrel. Many companies are also not too keen to take the risk as they are not too sure of the security situation once the Americans withdraw completely.

 

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