Obama's Mona Lisa smile

Discussion in 'Americas' started by ajtr, Aug 14, 2010.

  1. ajtr

    ajtr Veteran Member Veteran Member

    Oct 2, 2009
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    Obama's Mona Lisa smile

    By M K Bhadrakumar

    The range of interpretations given by the small group of journalists invited to United States President Barack Obama's briefing on Iran last week is truly amazing. What comes to mind is Mona Lisa, the famous song sung in a soft baritone voice six decades ago, before Obama was born, by another African-American from Chicago, Nat King Cole:
    Do you smile to tempt a lover, Mona Lisa,
    Or is this your way to hide a broken heart?
    Many dreams have been brought to your doorstep
    They just lie there and they die there.
    Was there a "mystic smile" on Obama's lips when he briefed the media? David Ignatius of the Washington Post was certain

    Obama put the issue of negotiating with Iran "firmly back on the table", but Peter David of The Economist was equally sure Obama "unveiled no new policy".

    Marc Ambinder and Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic thought Obama was grandstanding before his domestic audience about the effectiveness of his policy of engagement joined with tightening the squeeze on Iran economically and politically.

    Prominent commentator Robert Kagan drew satisfaction that Obama signaled "there was no new diplomatic initiative [on Iran] in the offing". On the whole, the neo-conservatives in the US are delighted that the glove on their president's fist hides high-quality steel.

    They all are probably right in their own way. However, against the backdrop of the upcoming US Congressional elections in November, one main purpose of the briefing was to reassure Israel and the influential pro-Israel lobby in US politics that the Obama presidency's Iran policy of harping on the theme of engagement meant no real harm to the interests of the Jewish state.

    The heart of the matter is that the US policy on Iran is again at a crossroads. Obama made the case that he tried to engage Iran early in his presidency, but Tehran failed to respond. But, in actuality, did he really try? While he made overtures to Tehran, sections within his own administration strove for "regime change" in Iran and undertook covert operations. Iran was given the chance to negotiate at gunpoint.

    At some stage after last year's presidential election in Iran, Washington convinced itself about the scope for a "color revolution" in Tehran. Whereas, the priority should have been to negotiate with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who was well ensconced in power and could take tough decisions. Obama instead tried to enter into correspondence with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, forgetting entirely that he himself is but a caesar.

    Second, Obama claimed as a pillar of his Iran strategy the emphasis he placed on his nuclear non-proliferation agenda by living up to the US's own responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and organizing a successful NPT conference. Yet, as the world sees it, US policies are riddled with contradictions and in effect are shredding the treaty to pieces.

    Moscow's course correction
    However, it was his "reset" with Russia that Obama presented as the third crucial leg of the US's Iran policy. In short, Washington takes pleasure that Moscow not only betrayed Tehran but also lent a hand to encourage China, the European Union and Canada also to spurn Iran.

    Russia dumped Iran most opportunistically. But anyone who has been opportunistic once can do so again, and the US could already be sensing it.

    Nothing else can explain the alacrity with which US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appealed on Wednesday to the US Senate to act favorably on the "new START", the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia signed by Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in April and which needs to be ratified by the US Senate before it goes into effect.

    However, Moscow, which places great store in the START treaty for Russia's resurgence on the world stage, calculates that ratification requires 67 votes in the US Senate, which means the Obama administration would have to mobilize all 59 Democrats and independents and find at least another six Republicans to get the "new START" ratified. So far the only Republican senator who has publicly committed to support ratification is Richard Lugar from Indiana.

    Moscow seems to factor in that the policy shift on Iran has gone too far without commensurate returns and a course correction is useful. Kremlin rhetoric has tapered off. A new ambivalence has crept into the status of Russia's deal for supply of S-300 missiles to Iran.

    Russian company Lukoil last week supplied refined petroleum products to Iran, ignoring the US threat of retaliation - and that too, in partnership with Chinese oil company Zhuhai Zhenrong. Moscow received the Iranian oil minister to discuss bilateral cooperation and Russian officials have spoken of the likely commissioning of the Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran in August. The diplomatic front too shows signs of stirrings. Russia has joined China to criticize the US and the European Union's moves to impose unilateral sanctions against Iran.

    Reset of US-Russia reset?
    On Monday, the Iranian ambassador in Moscow, Reza Sajjadi, visited the Russian Foreign Ministry to have a "fruitful exchange of views" with Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Borodavkin regarding "themes related to the development of mutually beneficial Russian-Iranian economic and trade cooperation". According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, "Mutual interest was expressed in reinvigorating bilateral collaboration in this sphere."

    On Tuesday, Sajjadi was back to meet First Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Denisov. A Russian statement said, "The parties exchanged views on issues of the bilateral, regional and international agenda with particular focus on Russian-Iranian political dialogue and joint work aimed at resolving key international and regional problems." (Emphasis added.)

    The US's reset with Russia seems to be the shakiest leg in its Iran policy. Curiously, this problematic leg also happens to be made of a mixed alloy cast from Russian and Chinese metals.

    The US's successive acts of provocation against China in the Asia-Pacific in recent weeks could have fallout on Beijing's stance regarding the Iran issue. Significantly, the US has put Beijing on notice publicly. US special adviser for non-proliferation and arms control Robert Einhorn, who will proceed to Beijing later this month amid the rising tensions in Sino-US relations, said:
    We want China to be a responsible stakeholder in the international system and that means cooperating with UN Security Council resolutions. It means not backfilling, not taking advantage of the responsible self-restraint of other countries.

    One concern a number of countries expressed when approached to take measures against Iran is that "if we practice restraint, China will fill in behind, China will take advantage of our restraint".
    For Iran, the stakes are high, too. Iran's Deputy Oil Minister Hossein Noghrehkar said last week China had invested US$29 billion in Iran's oil sector and another $11 billion worth investment is in the pipeline, including for the setting up of seven refineries.

    To be sure, Beijing's perspective on the US-Russia reset comes into play. Beijing seems to estimate that the US-Russia reset has not gone much beyond Obama's "Burger Diplomacy" with Medvedev. On Monday, a Chinese commentary took a good look at Moscow's Iran policy. It said:
    As an ally of Iran with many strategic and economic interests in the country, Russia's pro-Western stance is unlikely to last ... Iran not only represents an important regional ally for Russia but also a useful bargaining tool in diplomatic relations with the West, especially the US. For now, Russia has decided its relations with the US are more important than its relations with Iran.

    Russia's pandering to Western countries has brought more negative than positive results ... Russia has gained little from its pro-Western stance. Meanwhile, Russians have voiced more doubts and criticism over Medvedev. Against such a backdrop, Russia cannot afford to lose Iran. Therefore, in the near future Russia is very likely to soften its tone toward Iran.
    All in all, Obama's "Mona Lisa smile" last week needs to be put in perspective. On the one hand, he apparently indicated to Tehran he was leaving open a "pathway" for a peaceful settlement of the nuclear issue and for a deal that allows the latter to maintain its civilian nuclear program as long as "a clear set of steps" could be negotiated that are "sufficient to show that they are not pursuing nuclear weapons".

    Meanwhile, Obama proposed a "separate track" for talks regarding Afghanistan, given the two countries' "mutual interest" in fighting the Taliban. He said Iran should be a "part" of the regional talks about stabilizing Afghanistan and "could be a constructive partner".

    The words were conciliatory. On the other hand, Obama insisted the US had the upper hand, the Iranians had been diplomatically isolated and sanctions were already "biting" and that, in this overall context, he was merely being logical in driving home the advantage by choosing to re-engage Iran.

    He also offered vaguely hawkish hints regarding the option in reserve to use force if diplomacy fails. Nat King Cole sang, "Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa?"

    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.
  3. ajtr

    ajtr Veteran Member Veteran Member

    Oct 2, 2009
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    Obama's battles in Asia

    By Chan Akya

    President Barack Obama represents in many ways the best things about America; that is a factoid that stands out even in the dreary absence of concrete achievements over the past two years.

    In the humble opinion of this writer, he may or may not be seen as a successful president of his country for what happens in the economy (I think not, but while many neo-Keynesians like Paul Krugman think otherwise, that's a matter for discussion another day). However, I cannot help but feel that the one area where he is most likely to be seen as a failure would be in redefining the role of the United States in Asia. All of the missed opportunities from his presidency are likely to haunt America for many decades to come.

    Admittedly this article is something that should have been aired in

    late 2008 when he won the election to be the president of the US. The objective of writing this nearly two years later is to present a progress report of sorts; Obama faces the possibility of a "lame-duck" presidency if this year's elections prove negative for his political party. In that event, I would very much suggest that the president give up on a lost cause (re-election) and re-engage on an important strategic priority - America's role in Asia.

    A young, ambitious man who studies hard to be accepted into the best education that can be earned; who spurns a career of money-making in favor of public service and goes on to charge the batteries of a worn-out nation. That is a great story unto itself.

    His is not the story of immigrants - because he was born in the US to a Kenyan father and an American mother - but more one of the dizzying array of opportunities available to the young and the ambitious in the US. A region steeped in traditions and rigid hierarchies would do well to take a few leaves from the book of Obama; and particularly so if that region is to be the primary (and perhaps sole) engine of the global economy in decades to come.

    Cosmetically, the first thing that one notices about the Obama presidency is the sheer shock it created in the minds of Asian leaders. As I explored in past articles (eg More racist than thou, Asia Times Online, January 11, 2008), the region is well-known for an entrenched racism that has been directed in particular against people of color.

    A casual walk through the shopping malls of Asia, whether in Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Mumbai, or Jakarta, reveals one interesting product that stands out - the ubiquitous array of "fairness creams" that cater primarily to the female demographic, although increasingly also to the male populations of the region.

    One only has to talk with people of color around Asia - whether it is in the top cities or the second-tier ones - to discern the sheer level of racism that pervades daily life. Some of it is subtle, but most of it is decidedly not. The sheer scale of economic opportunities around the region, combined with the clearly defined asymmetric risks of speaking out (polite for "the nail that stands out is pounded down") mean that much of the entrenched racism is almost never disclosed or discussed.

    Obama by himself is unlikely to do much damage to the entrenched racism around the region; but he is quite likely to help in many other matters. This article is focused on the five most important economies of Asia and what greater engagement from Obama might help achieve in this regard.

    Every time anyone suggests that the moribund state of Japan's political system couldn't possibly get worse, it immediately does. The perennial stasis of political parties notwithstanding, the major dynamic of Japan remains the family-based nature of the political classes.

    Walk away from the politics and the world of business - dominated by the keiretsu of old - is hardly any different. Stifling the flow of entrepreneurial capital has long been a pastime of banks and the equity markets; the single-most important change in the past 20 years in this system was America's dotcom bubble, which at least ushered in a new class of businessmen (Softbank's Masayoshi Son, who is of Korean descent, comes to mind).

    The success of Renault's Carlos Ghosn in turning around a national symbol (and by then national embarrassment) - the Nissan car company - sparked a range of popular action that included the launch of comics detailing his moves, which changed the direction of what had become a stodgy engineering company that had lost touch with its customers.

    That is exactly what greater exposure to Obama could help unleash for Japan - a new dynamic that elevates the aspirations and confidence of a new group of Japanese leaders; not associated with the stodgy old political dynasties but who believe in focusing on making a new and dynamic Japan that projects its politics as much as it does its economic clout.

    Since the election of Bill Clinton in 1993, China has basically had an easy ride through the political upheavals of America as the Asian country's willingness to engage has been dimmed by its increasing economic power and political stridency.

    The area where Obama can make the biggest impact in China remains the pursuit of democracy and human rights, topics that have been taboo to American leaders for many years. The Communist Party has been allowed to maintain its stranglehold on politics completely unchallenged for all this time. As various incidents of late have shown - for example the tackling of Google, the country's engagement with tyrannical and abusive regimes in Africa (a continent with particular poignancy for Obama) - this is not a course of action that can or will go unchallenged for too long.

    Another area where China's youth would benefit from focusing on Obama's experience would be in public service. All too often, Chinese columnists have noted the general apathy of the country's young towards public service, sacrificed for economic gains instead. The ability to attract more young Chinese to the political sphere isn't a matter for Obama directly; even if it does turn out to be an important side-effect of greater engagement with the country.

    Instead of a direct confrontation that would eventually come about, greater engagement of Obama in the affairs of China - for example by pushing aside the efforts of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton - would likely bear fruit. The young and the ambitious of China are hardly any different in their temperament from Obama; unleashing their potential would be to the distinct benefit of not just China but also, eventually, the United States.

    No nation in Asia has been let down as much as South Korea in the past 10 years. Reduced American engagement in the region has basically allowed the Korean situation to descend into a matter that is dominated by China, with the active connivance of Russia. Without direct participation of its former sponsor, the United States, South Korea has become increasingly desperate in its dealings with the North.

    Recent incidents, including the sinking in March of a South Korean naval ship, have only highlighted the dangerous new realities on the ground in Asia; these have been exacerbated by the absence of an active American role in the region.

    Secretary of State Clinton has grossly mishandled the Korean situation by failing to first appreciate the seriousness back in March, and subsequently using it as a bargaining chip to secure Chinese approval for sanctions against Iran (which are more popular as a topic in the US media and among the general public).
    Korean-Americans have been among the most visible of Asian minorities in the country, with a range of achievements to their credit. President Obama's failure to leverage their experience to secure a greater understanding of ground realities and engage in a principled course of action has tainted America as a friend of any power in the region.

    India has the ability to benefit most from an active role for Obama. The United States remains the most popular foreign nation in the country, even as New Delhi battles with terrorists, and increasingly the Maoists. (See The jihadi ate my homework Asia Times Online, February 24, 2007.)

    All that aside, the most important social issue confronting India is the ability of the country's downtrodden to emerge from social and political shackles. Much like in Japan, India's political system remains dominated by a few families whose stranglehold has in turn made the actions of the disenfranchised that much more desperate (think of the Maoists here, who appear to mainly draw their support from poor farmers without a political voice).

    It has not gone unnoticed in India that Obama's background is particularly inspirational for people belonging to poorer economic groups in the country. As a country where the social stigma associated with one's birth tends to be the strongest in Asia, the experience of Obama is an eye-opener on more than one front: firstly an increased admiration for the US and secondly (and perhaps) through the emergence of new leaders.

    The country of part of Obama's upbringing has admittedly not enjoyed significant attention for the past two years; it has almost been a happy coincidence that the overall economic and political developments of the country have remained on the positive path.

    Among all Islamic countries, it is Indonesia that offers the greatest hope to become a potent symbol through its combination of a tolerant version of Islam, democracy and a focus on economic development that helps lift living standards across the country.

    That is, however, a superficial view; undercurrents of increasing militancy and radicalism are impossible to avoid, particularly as the US campaign in the Middle East and Afghanistan continue unabated. The dangers of 200 million angry Muslims for the rest of Asia cannot be overstated.

    Obama can start with an easy victory in Indonesia, given his significant popularity in the country already. An ability to defang militant groups in their recruitment of young Indonesians would go a long way in both curbing the spread of militancy and enhancing the prestige of the US in the country.

    (Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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