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Missing: An Obama Foreign Policy

M.D. Nalapat holds the UNESCO Peace Chair and is Director of the School of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Manipal, India. A former Coordinating Editor of the Times of India, he writes extensively on security issues, policy, and international affairs.
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  • February 08, 2010

    Candidate Barack Obama was unapologetic about either his ancestry or his views, and thereby charmed voters in the US, a country that – like Elizabethan England - has regard for the loner and the swashbuckler. However, once he morphed into President-elect (and subsequently President) Obama, there was an immediate change in his approach. Gone was the risk-taking and the holding on to the unorthodox. Instead, he embraced the familiar, crafting an administration that has a Clinton brain inside an Obama face. This despite the reality that it was during Clinton's eight-year watch (1993-2001) that a nascent US-Russia partnership was destructed by an obsessive emphasis by the Clinton team on the conversion of that country into a pastoral purveyor of raw materials to Europe and to North America. It was Boris Yeltsin's acquiescence in the gutting of his country's technological and science capabilities by the United States and the European Union that led to the re-taking of power by the former KGB, personified by Vladimir Putin, in 1999. The new Russian czar was quick to discern that neither France nor Germany would welcome an integration of his huge country into a Europe dominated by them, and that Washington was emphatic that Moscow should no longer pose a Knowledge Challenge to the West, and should steadily get leached of such capabilities. The consequence of Clinton's myopia towards the need to integrate Moscow into the Western alliance on mutually honourable terms (a policy continued under George W. Bush) has been the emergence from 2005 onwards of a putative Sino-Russian partnership.

    It was the Clinton administration that created the conditions needed for the 1996 takeover of the Taliban in 78 per cent of Afghanistan. The Department of State acted in concert with a private oil company (Unocal) to ensure the training and deployment of a band of religious extremists who - they had been assured by the Pakistan Army - could be expected to be faithful executants of policies designed to ensure the control of Western oil companies over Central Asian hydrocarbon reserves, through the facilitation of a pipeline that would run across Afghanistan to Pakistan and India. If Osama bin Laden and his band of thugs felt emboldened to attack the continental United States the way they did on September 11, 2001, the "credit" for that goes to the way in which the Clinton team assisted the Taliban during 1994-99, even arranging multiple visits to the United States by terrorists known to be conducting operations against Indian troops in Kashmir. Naturally, throughout the Clinton administration, there was significant pressure on India to make the concessions on Kashmir that would - in effect - ensure jihadi control of that state. There was a dizzying stream of diplomats and other officials from the United States, the European Union and the Gulf Cooperation Council who interacted with elements in Kashmir indulging in violence, encouraging these in their murderous campaign.

    Although constantly wearing their "post-racial preferences" on their sleeves, in reality, the Clinton administration was a muscular votary of ethnic privilege, dividing the world into two segments, those who were deserving of the privilege of hi-technology and nuclear weapons, and the rest, who should be satisfied to permanently remain as an international underclass, depending on the geopolitical upper caste (comprising of the West, including Japan and in effect, China) for advanced brainpower. India, despite its democracy, its having almost as many English-language speakers as the United States, and its Indo-European cultural heritage, was treated as a somewhat bloated version of Lesotho or Laos. No nuclear weapons, no missiles, no hi-tech please. Throughout the eight years of Bill Clinton, the efforts at de-nuclearizing India were ceaseless and intrusive, almost reaching fruition during the Talbott-Singh talks, when - fortuitously - the Republican majority in the US Congress refused to ratify the CTBT in a 48-51 vote in 1999. Throughout the sixteen months prior to this, an orchestrated campaign had been launched in India as to how the signing of the CTBT would be in this country's best interests.

    Given its contempt for India and its indulgence towards Pakistan's ISI and the Taliban, it was small wonder that the Clinton years saw the growth in influence of what this analyst termed the "next superpower" in 1998: China. It was during the 1990s that Beijing came into its own as a geopolitical giant, developing dense and profitable business links with the United States, that - it must be admitted - worked to the benefit of US consumers by reducing prices.

    It needs to be remembered that it was during the Clinton administration that the system of regulations (that prevented financial enterprises in the United States from over-leveraging in their eagerness for profits) got dismantled. Rather than bring back systems that would contain excess speculation, the George W. Bush administration cut back even more on regulations, creating the environment which led to the 2008 financial collapse. Although much has been written about the economic effects of this man-made catastrophe, what has gone unremarked is its impact on international geopolitics. Thanks to indexes such as Transparency International, a perception was created that it was only in the non-Western world that graft and greed predominated, while countries in North America, the European Union as well as offshoots such as New Zealand and Australia were exemplars of virtue. The theft of value in the dissolving of assets of just a single company - AIG - has been considerably more than that caused by corruption in the whole of Asia from 1958 to 2008, and yet not once did Transparency International mention London, Zurich, Frankfurt or New York to be dodgy places to entrust one's savings to. The perception of the West as a credible partner of integrity has been severely damaged by the 2008 financial crisis, with the result that opportunities have come up for Mumbai, Shanghai and other Asian cities to become international financial hubs.

    Given such a record, it was expected of President Obama that he would remain as distant from the toxic legacy of the Clintons as he did during the campaign. Instead, immediately following his election victory in 2008, he embraced the Clinton platform. Whether in the White House or the Department of State, whether in the CIA or in the Treasury, those who were responsible for crafting the victory of Candidate Obama find hardly any place. Instead it is their rivals - whose views and whose attitude were rejected by Democratic Party voters in the 2008 primaries - who fill the key levers of power. Change, it would seem, has arrived with a "c" so small as to be practically invisible. For Barack Obama, clearly the future is the past. Specifically, the eight years of Bill Clinton's presidency, down to the condescending, insensitive action of appointing the former president as the new boss of Haiti, a country that is technically independent, but apparently is as much a dependency of the United States as is Afghanistan or Iraq.

    President Obama has - almost without missing a stride - followed the Clinton prescription of denying hi-tech cooperation to India, and in seeking to ensure the degrading and the eventual disappearance of India's puny nuclear and missile assets. He has once again placed emphasis on the European Union as the sole preferred partner of the United States internationally, involving only countries in that grouping in his backchannel diplomacy in the Middle East or on other issues, involving China only in a theatre where it cannot be ignored, North Korea. Once again, there is pressure - this time almost entirely out of public view - on India to make concessions on Kashmir that would generate a communal firestorm in the rest of the country. Not that the Clinton brains trust of the "new" administration is aware of such a blowback. During 1997-99, the Clinton administration forced Indonesia to surrender East Timor, an action that gave oxygen to multiple Islamic groups in that country, and created a hatred of the Christians and the West that has fuelled a succession of terror attacks. Just as is the case with India, Indonesia can remain a secular country only if there are provinces where the minorities are in a majority, and accept Jakarta's rule. Kosovo is another example of the Clinton penchant for geographical engineering. The separation of this province from Yugoslavia in 1999 ensured that Russia would gravitate away from the West and towards the only other viable option, China. The Kosovo War of 1998-99 was not to "rescue a Muslim people" than it was to show the impotence of the largest Slav state, Russia, while another Slav republic, Serbia, was being dismembered.

    President Obama talks of a world order different from that where it is seen as natural that the West would run the globe. He talks of a spreading of rights and responsibilities in a multipolar system. He has even made India's Prime Minister his first State Visitor! However, all this has thus far been talk. On the ground, it is once again the Clinton Era. Just as there was a horrible blowback for the first, in the form of the emaciation of the United States from sole superpower status to a country unable to subdue even much smaller states, Clinton Mark Two will have its own blowback. Clinton I lost Russia for the West. Clinton II aka Obama I is on track to lose India.