Obama's baring of soul has nothing for India

China takes a high place in American thinking because of the threats it can pose to American interests.

Update: 2016-04-24 19:29 GMT
President Barack Obama speaks during the opening ceremony of the Hannover Messe Trade Fair in Hannover, Germany. (Photo: AP)

In an extraordinary and unique document based on a series of long interviews over time which Jeffrey Goldberg dubs The Obama Doctrine (The Atlantic, April issue), a sitting American President voices his preferences, allergies and worldview with frankness as he assesses his seven years in office. Indeed, the outcome is as revealing as it is undiplomatic on a range of men and issues troubling the world.

The most glaring omission is India, with not one word said about it in this overview of the world extending to myriad sessions.

Pakistan gets a bashing, with Goldberg declaring that President Obama believes it is “a disastrously dysfunctional country” and why it “should be considered an ally of the US at all”. At the same time, the President expresses his frustration with Saudi Arabia which, in his view, suppresses half its population.

Goldberg’s conclusion about Mr Obama’s worldview is: “I came to see Obama as a President who has grown steadily more fatalistic about the constraints on America’s ability to direct global events even as he has, late in his presidency, accumulated a set of potentially historic achievements — controversial, provisional achievements, to be sure, but achievements nonetheless: the opening to Cuba, the Paris climate change accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and, of course, the Iran nuclear deal”.

Mr Obama places climate change above the threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as the most worrying looming disaster and is particularly critical of the “Washington playbook”. He seeks to explain his actions in staying his hand once Syria’s President Bashar Assad had crossed his red line in using chemical weapons in the civil war, believing it was “a slippery slope... and the fact that I was able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest, not only in respect to Syria but also with respect for our democracy, was as tough as I’ve made — was the right decision to make”.

For President Obama, there is a bugbear, apart from the Washington playbook he disdains: the freeloaders. In his narration, they come in two forms, the “frustrating high-maintenance allies in the Middle East”, countries he complains privately to friends seek to exploit American “muscle” for selfish ends and allies like Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron who claim a “special relationship” with the US without spending two per cent of their GDP on defence, an omission that was corrected.

Apart from his volte-face on Syria, what has hurt President Obama’s reputation the most was his soaring rhetoric to the Muslim world early in his presidency in Cairo remaining unfulfilled and forgotten. He explains it thus to Goldberg: “...I was hoping that my speech would trigger a discussion, could create space for Muslims to address the real problems they are confronting — problems of governance and the fact that some currents of Islam have not gone through a reformation that would help people to adapt their religious doctrines to modernity”. Then came the moment of hope in the Arab Spring, to be dashed soon enough by the return of the familiar autocratic ruler.

Goldberg confirms that Mr Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu never got along well, with the latter’s propensity to give the President history lessons. Indeed, at one point he asks why Israel should be given a military edge over its neighbours. But after a marathon effort by his secretary of state, John Kerry, in the initial phase, the President gave up on a Palestinian-Israeli settlement, presumably because he knew the power of the Jewish lobby in the US administrative and legislative structures.

In a surprising aside, Mr Obama acknowledges the Russian stakes in Ukraine. He said, “Ukraine is a core Russian interest, but not an American one, so Russia will always be able to maintain escalatory dominance there.” If only the US state department would follow the President’s wisdom, the Ukrainian crisis would be solved tomorrow.

And Mr Obama is nuanced on Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. He said, “The truth is, actually, Putin, in all of our meetings, is scrupulously polite, very frank. Our meetings are very businesslike... He is constantly interested in being seen as our peer and as working with us... He understands that Russia’s overall position in the world is significantly diminished”.

It is clear from the series of Mr Obama’s interactions with Goldberg that China is taking up much of his time and energy. He expanded on the theme: “In terms of traditional great state relations, I do believe that the relationship between the United States and China is going to be the most critical. If we get that right and China continues on a peaceful rise, then we have a partner that is growing in capability and sharing with us the burdens and responsibilities of maintaining an international order”.

Mr Obama continued, “If China fails, if it is not able to maintain a trajectory that satisfies its population and has to resort to nationalism as an organising principle; if it feels so overwhelmed that it never takes on the responsibilities of a country its size in maintaining the international order; if it views the world only in terms of regional spheres of influence — then not only do we see the potential for conflict with China, and we will find ourselves having more difficulty in dealing with these other challenges that are going to come”.

How can India benefit from this baring of the soul of a sitting President? First, we have to recognise that despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s consistent effort to build an equation with President Obama as well as other world leaders, India counts for little in the American worldview and preoccupations. Pakistan got a look-in for unflattering reasons.

Second, China takes a high place in American thinking because of the threats it can pose to American interests. The President weighs these in the crucible of direct threats to America. His emphasis on climate change as an existential threat is revealing because it can upend nations and continents, leading to much deprivation and chaos.

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