Next US President has a ready crown of thorns

Iran and the Shia-Sunni rivalry mixed with Israeli paranoia & the nuclear genie complete the US President’s crown of thorns

The third and final Obama-Romney debate was on October 22, two weeks before the US presidential election. It also happened to be the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, as indeed the Sino-India war of 1962.

The focus was on foreign policy and issues of national security. Normally, presidential contests are settled on domestic issues. The US, however, is still enmeshed in a decade-long war on terror, following the 9/11 attack in 2001. US President Barack Obama inherited from his predecessor two wars — in Iraq and Afghanistan — a yawning budgetary deficit and the banking crisis of 2008, followed by the financial crisis in euro zone. Historically this should have spelt doom for the Obama re-election bid. That he is still in a dead heat is a reflection of the US electorate realising that there are probably no easy answers to their domestic and international dilemmas.
Not surprisingly, India went unmentioned in the debate. There appears to be bi-partisan consensus on close relations with it. The other issues were easily predictable. Asked to name the biggest challenge for the US, Obama mentioned terrorism, while Romney felt it was a nuclear Iran. Obama bantered about Romney in the past considering Russia to be the biggest menace. The two contenders went on to debate a post-withdrawal Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, China and their vision of what should be the size of the US military and the US’ role in the world.
Three interesting issues discussed were the methodology for dealing with Islamic radicalisation, Iran and relations with Pakistan. As the challenger, Romney could afford generalisations like the need for a “comprehensive and robust strategy” to deal with the first problem. He suggested engagement with Islamic scholars, foreign aid and economic development as antidotes and emphasis on gender equality. The last was as much to woo female US voters who prefer Obama by a significant gap due to his espousal of pro-choice policies on birth control, a traditional anathema for the conservative base of Republicans.
On the eve of the debate, media reports speculated about a possible dialogue track having opened between the US and Iran. Historically, such contact has always ended unhappily. Seyed Hossein Mousavian, who was the head of the Foreign Relations Committee of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council from 1997 to 2005, jailed by the Ahmadinejad government and now at Princeton university, writes in his book The Iranian Nuclear Crisis that there was deep cogitation in the Iranian government on what stance to adopt once the IAEA resolution of 2003 made it obvious that the Iranian nuclear issue was out in the open. Engagement with the US was suggested but shot down by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
Obama killed all speculation by denying that there was any such contact, thus countering the attempt to put him on the defensive. While both candidates endorsed the defence of Israel, if attacked, their approach to Iran was differently shaded. Romney wants to stymie a “nuclear-capable Iran”, leaving ambiguous whether Iran can retain any nuclear fuel cycle capability, while Obama merely talked of the sanctions track being time-bound and all options being on the table. Perhaps, at this stage, the candidates were more concerned about the Jewish votes in swing states, like Florida, than the implications of a nuclear weapon possessing Iran.
On Afghanistan both concurred that the 2014 withdrawal was definite but only Romney held forth on Pakistan, emphasising its importance as a nuclear weapon-possessing nation and a possible spoiler in Afghanistan. Curiously, even Romney dubbed the Obama troop surge, announced in December 2009, as successful. An indication of the rise of China is the time the two spent discussing it. Romney was less than enthusiastic defending his assertion that on his first day as President he would nail China as a currency manipulator. In an integrated world, the US and China, or even India and China, will have to handle cooperation, competition and friction as simultaneously occurring factors in a world pivoting towards Asia, which Obama called a “massive growth area”.
From the debate no surprise has emerged to impinge on Indian geo-political calculations, although like the injured fox in the fable refusing to have the flies whisked off its bleeding wounds as the ones sitting are already sated while the new ones would be hungry, perhaps Obama is best for India, having already learnt to deal with a region where US allies are often duplicitous. Although the differences between the two contenders may well be, as Obama quipped, not of content but of tone.
The reality is more complex than a televised debate would convey as multiple crises are lingering to confront the next US President as his term commences in 2013. The end game in Afghanistan is still uncertain, as are the consequences of the Arab Spring. The unresolved Syrian imbroglio is spilling over into Lebanon, Turkey and northern Iraq. The Al Qaeda has regenerated in North Mali — a combination of smuggled Libyan arms, Latin American drugs and radical Islam. The 10-yearly transition of power in China, far from harmonious, occurs as China’s maritime disputes in South and East China seas, a decelerating economy and attendant strains in its social cohesion persist. Iran and the Shia-Sunni rivalry mixed with Israeli paranoia and the nuclear genie complete the US President’s crown of thorns. Also in 2013, elections are due in Israel, Japan, Iran, Pakistan and, perhaps, India. US actions may not always be globally popular, but there is no other country that can be the bulwark of the current global security order. Thus, for Americans the Obama-Romney duel may have only electoral significance; for the world it has existential implications.

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry

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