Nov 10th 2008

Obama, the law of perception, and geopolitics

by Sol W. Sanders

Sol W. Sanders, (, is an Asian specialist with more than 25 years in the region, and a former correspondent for Business Week, U.S. News & World Report and United Press International

The growing speculation, fed by the musings of Vice President Elect Joseph Biden, that the incoming Obama Administration would shortly face a nice, neat - if painful - "generated" test of its abilities and its courage is not likely.

At least not in that form. There is no bipolar world, no Cold War, no Soviet Union which tested JFK, first in Vienna and then in the air and on the beaches of Cuba. While the immediate danger of nuclear holocaust might be smaller - although that, too, comes under question - the nature of the world scene is one of almost unfathomable complexity. The fragile alliances are largely on the basis of my enemy's enemy is my friend.

There is only a motley crew of headless friendly governments wandering around disconsolately denouncing, but then, of necessity, soliciting American leadership. On the other side are fanatical if largely ineffectual regimes always ready to blame their problems on the Americans or descend into violence when Washington is not around to prevent it.

What is a much more likely possibility - in a world of unanticipated events and unintended consequences - is that the inexperienced and untested Barack Obama's foreign policy will float off into a world of vacuity. It could well be a Carter Redux, a period when diplomacy consisted as much in the Secretary of State waltzing with Kim Il-Sung as hard-nosed analysis and detailed spadework.

In that famous formulation of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, there are the things we know, the things we do not know, and the things we do not know that we do not know.

Obama's public pronouncements on foreign policy, such as they have been, and the contradictory leaks from his myriad collection of advisers [whom incidentally he has shucked off like the leaves of autumn], makes a number of assumptions. The nub always pretends that "out there" are coherent friends and enemies with their firmly held beliefs instead of the Hobbesian real world. In addition, there is a general assumption that America's difficulties have resulted from the Bush Administration's refusing the collaboration and willingness to share burdens with multilateral organizations from the United Nations to the European Union.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Because of his own personal preoccupations and the onset of the financial crisis and a probable debilitating recession, an Obama Administration - at least in its early months, disorganized, confused and conflicted - will turn its attention primarily to domestic affairs. The world, it would seem, then would have to get on with its own affairs on its own.

There would be, it is argued in some quarters, leadership and intellectual resources aplenty to pick up the slack.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Indicative of the real state of affairs are the leaks from the frenetic French President Nikolas Sarkozy about his misgivings about Obama's attitudes, especially toward the problem of Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. It is as though a generation of European leadership flirting with a sentimental anti-Americanism, has been pushing on a door blocked by U.S. policymakers, suddenly has burst open, leading into a darkened room.

The contradictory statements of a new and virtually untried regime in Baghdad are equally illuminating. Yes, of course, the Iraqis want the Americans to go home, as much as Obama's followers. But, for the most part, not just yet - and that hesitancy is likely to increase. The remnants of Al Qaida in that country may take heart from what they had reason to believe from Obama's earlier statements, amended as so much has been, of a rapid and precipitous withdrawal. But the Iraqi elite want the Americans to stay under special conditions, a hypocritical argument that has so far led to one of those endless and torturous "status of forces agreements". With little institutional memory, it as though Washington had not been through this so many times from Bonn to Bangkok to Tokyo in the last half century.

Dealing with the problem of Iran's fanatical Muslim state terrorism is a prime example, too. With medium range missiles being developed as well as the possibility of fitting them with nuclear warheads, it is something the Europeans have every reason to be worried about. Theoretically, at least, they will feel the brunt of Iranian power long before the longer range missiles are ready for targeting against the U.S. The Czechs and Poles have decided to wait a while to permit American deployment of the first elements of an anti-missile shield; logically, they want to know what the real Obama in office looks like.

Meanwhile, the Europeans have dithered in negotiations for years, assigned to them by the Bush Administration in a good-cop, bad-cop strategy. The Bush Administration - to mix my metaphor - stood outside the hut and huffed and puffed and threatened to blow the house down. But while all this was going on, German trade with Iran soared in spite of the supposed UN sanctions. Russia and China have opposed strengthening the UN international sanctions. Russia continued to play cat and mouse with supplying Tehran the guts of its nuclear efforts [although it could be the closest target for blackmail in Central Asia]. And the spike in oil prices" temporarily "solved" the regime's problems of total systemic inefficiency and corruption.

The threat of Tehran to wipe a fellow UN member, Israel, off the map, is virtually ignored by the London, Paris, Berlin, and Madrid gliterrati behind their cocktail party new anti-Semitism and denunciations of Israeli "nazi-like" attitudes toward the Palestinians. But in fact, it is clear the Europeans are waiting, hopefully, for the Israelis to take out the missiles and nuclear facilities. That would be, if and when the threat becomes even more apparent even to them. But it would not stop them from condemning the Israelis for "excessive use of force", just as they did the Americans in Iraq.

As with the case of Saddam Hussein's Iraq - whom every foreign intelligence organization believed was developing weapons of mass destruction as did the Americans - almost two dozen UN condemnatory resolutions were voted. But it was left to the Americans to finally implement them with action, military action denounced of course in the most craven way by European leaders. Most of them have ended up in Lenin's waste bin of history, out of office for their other failed policies. [But then Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was able to write himself a lifetime check as chairman of a proposed controversial Russian-German gas pipeline, violating the sovereignty of all the Baltic riparian states, and in the face of repeated calls for a strategy to limit the EU's dependence on Moscow's energy blackmail.]

Still there is no dearth on all fronts of the ambitious talk of new entities and alliances to create a new multi-polar world. That, some of Obama's advisers appear to believe, would lift the indignity and sacrifice of the Americans spending more on their security arrangements most of the other military powers combined, in order to act as the world policeman.

The reality is that there is a flaccid European Union, bereft of any capacity to use its largely nonexistent military. That flies in the face of Obama reluctantly finally admitting (Geopolitics 101), that military force cannot "be ruled off the table", that it is a primary weapon of statecraft. But at the moment, that same EU is meeting its larger than life caricature of the American financial crisis with beggar-your-neighbor economic policies that threaten to plunge it into some sort of mock Soviet bureaucratization.

But then are not Russia and China coming together in a new anti-American alliance for peace and stability? Perhaps that claim could have been made made tendentiously until Moscow invaded a small neighbor, arbitrarily sniping off two ethnic enclaves by recognizing their "independence". There were too many similarities for Beijing to what just could happen, under the appropriate circumstances, to China's occupied Tibet and Singkiang. At a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization [SCO] Beijing refused to endorse Moscow's action, even if it is assumed to be aimed at American support for an independent and free Georgia. The SCO had developed into Beijing-Moscow's common effort to limit the Washington influence in Central Asia. But it had been formed initially to support the U.S. worldwide effort against Islamofascism in Central Asia, with "the stans" defying Moscow's "hegemony" after 9/11. And with the tragic events in Afghanistan, we may be back at square one.

A bloated Russian general staff worries about Chinese ethnics being the largest group of illegal aliens in the country, in isolated Siberia depopulating at a rate even faster than the rest of the Federation. There, despite recent border adjustments, Beijing has old claims against "unequal treaties".

Economic collaboration in this grand alliance is having the same sort of problems. Another signing of the Far Eastern Pipeline has just been negotiated. But there remains the small unresolved question of who would fund it and who would get the oil, China or Japan, and at what price it would be sold. None of these are small considerations for Old Ras Putin. Russian arms sales, the lifeblood of the tacit Moscow-Beijing alliance, are dwindling as the momentum of Soviet overcapitalization of its security sector winds down and the Chinese show spectacular talents for creating "knock-offs" from what they have already bought. Moscow's mercantilists do not like the growing trade imbalance in raw materials for China and cheap manufactured imports for Russia.

The reality is an economically disintegrating Russia has exacerbated its 20-year-old Chechnya problem with the Georgian invasion, creating a bleeding sore all along its southern [Northern Caucuses] border and aggravating its growing demographic catastrophe and social problems with its vast Muslim minority. Not only will it suffer from the collapse of the oil price, but its persecution of the Anglo-American oil companies with their essential technology threatens production in the new Sakhalin fields, the floor under its declining hydrocarbons, the only source of its newfound wealth.

India, Brazil, and the "have-nots" united into peudo-legendary G20 to block a compromise - initiated by the Americans with major concessions on agricultural subsides. It was to blackmail the ultra-protectionist Europeans into a new round of world trade stimulation. Thus ended the long and torturous Dubai Round to get major new concessions for worldwide trade and to create an essential agricultural revolution in the backward economies. But that was now eons ago in economic history!

That Washington initiative won't come again soon, from an Obama Administration flirting with protectionism - at least for a while. Meanwhile, India and Brazil and their friends are sinking into the old slow growth routines with mushrooming abjectly impoverished populations. They are stuck with export-led strategies facing drying up markets in a recession-struck U.S. and EU. China's much touted modernization, again based on the American [and European] markets hangs by a thread as the chickens of corruption and top-down governance come home to roost. It approaches the highly publicized 8 percent gross national product level at which unemployment drowns the new urban elite based on exports.

What the election of Obama contributes to this essentially disordered world is a series of perceptions - however false they may turn out to be - about the character of an Obama Administration. Perception is as important as reality in the short term in geopolitics as in life generally. These false perceptions will make any effort to project American leadership and some order around the world even more difficult. That's especially true with the stress the American military is under with two unresolved wars going and threats from the Barney Franks of Obama's Congressional minions to cut the Pentagon's budget by a quarter.

Just as many elitist Americans have swallowed the fiction that election of an African-American would overnight solve the long stain of racism and retarded domestic Afro-American development, the European public clings to the hope that Obama's mantra of hope and change will solve their problems. In fact, they are likely only to make any progress more difficult by false confidence in an American leadership that does not yet exist and may be too busy at home to lend anything like gigantic initiatives such as the Marshall Plan and NATO. Europe's governing elite can only realistically hope the learning curve would be as shallow as possible and that the credit and confidence crisis of the American economy is short-lived.

Just as many young Americans have believed the complicated domestic social and economic issues of the U.S. will be solved overnight by high-sounding rhetoric and hope and a brown-skinned president, much of the Muslim world has seen an Obama victory with his personal history as a solution to its problems. Whatever his allegiances, Obama has no more magic for the centuries of social and economic stagnation than other leaders of the past half century since decolonialization.

Just as Obama initially proposed unencumbered negotiations with state terrorism [in Iran and Syria, for example], the perception in those quarters that he would make concessions [that in the end he cannot make] makes settlement even more difficult. The perception that he has new and different basic remedies for terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan is going to make the hard-slogging to find strategies and tactics such as those of General David Petraeus' in Iraq even more difficult.

Perceptions rarely die quickly - unless they are blown apart by the reality of events. The world and Americans must hope that would not be the case for what Obama has promised and what he can realistically achieve.


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