By M K Bhadrakumar
In Spanish, they say Dime con quien andas y te dire quien eres – â€œTell me with whom you walk and I will tell you who you are.â€
When United States President Barack Obama walked into the East Room in the White House on Monday evening with former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel, his nominee for defense secretary, that was the thought that came to mind. It was a short walk, which nonetheless had precipitated in its anticipation much animated debate in the Washington circuit.
Hagel is an extraordinary person for the US president to walk with at this point in Americaâ€™s trajectory as the worldâ€™s lone superpower with a military budget that outstrips the rest of the world combined.
Obama underscored it by saying his choice of Hagel is â€œhistoricâ€, since the former senator would be the â€œfirst from the enlisted ranksâ€ to serve as secretary of defense and â€œone of the few secretaries who have been wounded in warâ€ who would know â€œwar is not an abstraction… [he] understands that sending young Americans to fight and bleed in the dirt and mud, thatâ€™s something we only do when itâ€™s absolutely necessary.â€
Obama said everything that he thought was needed to be said about Hagel – that is, almost everything. However, what he didnâ€™t say and what is on everyoneâ€™s mind nonetheless is also important to recount: Hagel is someone who opposed the 2003 Iraq war and in fact went on to seek an investigation over the reasons given by the George W Bush administration to justify the invasion. He is someone who questioned the â€œsurgeâ€ in Afghanistan and drew parallels with Vietnam, and who is a strong critic of economic sanctions in general.
He also favors talks with Hamas.
Here is someone who wonâ€™t mistake engagement as â€œappeasementâ€ but will regard it as an â€œopportunity to better understandâ€ others, and who advocates that great and powerful nations â€œmust be adults in world affairsâ€.
Here is a future US defense secretary who believes that the conflicts of the future â€œare beyond the control of any great powerâ€ and unlikely to involve unilateral US actionâ€; and who estimates that the defense department that he is going to run â€œin many ways has become bloatedâ€ and â€œin many ways… the Pentagon needs to be pared downâ€.
That is to say, prima facie, Hagel is an odd choice as the defense secretary if the conventional wisdom holds good that US foreign policy is driven by that countryâ€™s military-industrial complex and the pervasive lobbies that work out of Washington, and is indeed embedded deep within American imperialism.
So, where is the real departure – or, is there a departure at all? The answer to the question lies in Obamaâ€™s political personality. Obama has been a proponent of â€œsoft powerâ€, but being a consummate politician, he proved to be a pragmatic president in his first term, surrounding himself with advisers such as Hillary Clinton, Dennis Ross, and Robert Gates, whom he knew very well to be by no means his soul mates sharing the beliefs he boldly professed – on the Iraq war, Guantanamo Bay, and so forth – while being an aspirant for the Oval Office.
Looking back, Obama picked up the threads on many issues where Bush left them, and he coolly abandoned some of his own campaign promises.
Suffice to say, the nomination of Hagel harks back to the â€œaudacity of hopeâ€ that Obama famously held out in the run up to his unceremonious entry as an outsider into national politics in the US. The big question today is: Are we about to witness the real beginning of the Obama era in US foreign policy?
A good case can be made that Obama is breaking out of the image of timidity that somehow came to be associated with the foreign policy he pursued in the first term as president. Of course, to be fair to him, the lurking suspicion was always there that as a clever politician he deliberately chose not to follow his instincts during his first term as president in order to get re-elected. To be sure, he ended up disappointing his admirers (home and abroad) and supporters – and at times vindicated his detractors – but then, it is never an easy balance to strike between value-based politics and the politics of expediency.
Arguably, a combination of the difficult circumstances within the US and the complexities of the emerging world order would now enable Obama to settle on a style of leadership, finally, that is value-based and accords to his beliefs and convictions. Meanwhile, liberated from the exigencies of having to fight for another public office, he is also largely free to follow his instincts without inhibitions. Obama being a gifted intellectual with a strong sense of history would also have his eyes cast on his presidential legacy as the helmsman at this defining moment in his countryâ€™s future.
Obama is acutely aware of the rise of other leading states on the international arena and is conscious of the growing limits to the USâ€™s dominant military might in the international system. On the other hand, as he never tires of admitting, he is a great patriot who is a passionate believer in the ideas of American exceptionalism, and in the USâ€™s destiny as a world leader. Without doubt, therefore, he will continue to uphold American interests and seek to relentlessly perpetuate the USâ€™s lead role in world affairs, although his methods may vary.
A powerful signal
However, it may not necessarily be up to Obama to set his foreign-policy compass, given the volatility of the international environment and the forces of history that are at work today. In sum, he is going to be as much a â€œvictimâ€ of events overseas as a navigator.
Take the Iran problem, for example. Reaching a grand bargain with Iran may seem a low-hanging fruit (which it is) – ensuring that Tehran doesnâ€™t pursue a nuclear weapon program in return for Washington lifting the onerous economic sanctions – but it overlooks that there are entrenched interest groups on both sides, including among some of the USâ€™s key allies in the region, who would continue to thwart any attempts by him to unfreeze US-Iran ties.
Again, ending the crisis is Syria may seem a deceptively simple matter of working out a deal with Russia and of the US exercising self-restraint by refraining from directly involving in fighting the war. But on the contrary, the eruption of sectarian schism in that country may already have let loose demons that could prove to be difficult to control even with the best of intentions in Moscow and Washington.
Similarly, the Arab Spring is yet in its early stages, and already the palpable reality staring the world in the face is that the US is barely coping with the treacherous flow of events.
Clearly, the will to end the Afghan war is undeniably there, but then, the challenge of reassuring a problematic Pakistan and cajoling it to relinquish its long-held objective of gaining â€œstrategic depthâ€ and to give up the support for the Taliban as a hedge to ward off Indian influence in Kabul as the US role wanes is a formidable one, with no clear prospects of an agreeable end result in view, although the withdrawal of US combat troops is scheduled to be completed within the year.
Yet, imagine, all these troubling questions are also closely linked one way or another to the USâ€™s discourse with the Muslim world. Moving further on, the expert opinion happens to be that US relations with China and Russia may be heading for a rough patch. The USâ€™s â€œrebalancingâ€ to Asia; its propensity to get involved in Chinaâ€™s territorial disputes and its support of democratic advances; Obamaâ€™s own â€œAsia Pivot Tourâ€ soon after the November election – Beijing no doubt sees them all as provocative.
Similarly, Obama needs to reinvent the â€œresetâ€ with Russia, but whether he feels the urge to strike a productive relationship with President Vladimir Putin – as he apparently struck with former president and now prime minister Dmitry Medvedev – remains in doubt.
The high probability is that although Obama has promised â€œmore flexibilityâ€ with Russia on the thorny issue of missile defense after his re-election, the US administration would still continue to engage Russia only selectively on pressing issues of concern to the US while otherwise by and large ignoring Russia. On its part, Moscow seems to be keeping its fingers crossed as to the prospects for a real breakthrough in the increasingly acrimonious US-Russia discourse during Obamaâ€™s second term.
Thus, on balance, it all but seems likely that the more things appear to change, the more they might remain the same. But that will be a gross simplification of the powerful signal Obama has chosen to send by selecting two Vietnam veterans for the two key cabinet posts of secretaries of state and defense – John Kerry and Hagel.
Obama is signaling much more than a new leadership style of using more carrots than sticks, more ideas and persuasion than threats and sanctions, more â€œsoft powerâ€ than â€œsmart powerâ€. The bottom line is that now that he wonâ€™t be running again, Obama enjoys far greater space and flexibility than during the past four years to really test a values-based foreign policy approach that relies on negotiations.
Mondayâ€™s short walk with Hagel is long enough to recall who Obama used to be – and could still turn out to be.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.