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Opinion

August 2, 2015

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Obama’s ‘Nobel’ debt

T S Eliot was not joking when he said “the Nobel is a ticket to one’s own funeral. No one has ever done anything after he got it.” President Obama got this ticket too soon in his presidency.
Within less than a year after his election as the first-ever non-white US president in more than two hundred years of American history, Obama got the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize for doing nothing. He is indeed a miracle man. Getting elected as America’s first-ever black president was itself a miracle, but becoming a Nobel peace laureate as head of state of a superpower that has been tirelessly fighting wars since after the Second World War was an even bigger miracle.
His choice as the recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize was an unexpected honour and a big ‘surprise’ for Obama himself. The son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas, Barack Hussein Obama was on an extraordinary success path shattering barriers. He entered the White House in what was seen as a barrier-crossing moment and then became the third serving US president to win the Nobel Peace Prize. The other two sitting American presidents to have received this honour were Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, for negotiating an end to a war between Russia and Japan, and Woodrow Wilson in 1919, for the Treaty of Versailles. Obama had no such feat to his credit.
President Obama had just been in office less than nine months when the Nobel Committee picked him up for the prize citing him “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples that had created a new climate in international politics.” At least till then, no such ‘extraordinary efforts’ for peace were visible. If anything, his Nobel ‘citation’ was already in tatters. Soon after entering the White House, he had escalated CIA-operated drone attacks into Pakistan. In doing so, he completely ignored that the UN Charter (Article 2) obliges all states “to refrain from the threat or use

of force against the territorial integrity and political independence of any state.”
Only days before receiving his Nobel, Obama had ordered a fresh military surge of additional 30,000 troops for Afghanistan. It then took him four years to withdraw those troops but a significant number of them are still there. Afghan peace is still nowhere in sight. The situation in Iraq is no different. The illegal war is over but anarchy and chaos reign supreme in that hapless country. Until last year, Obama kept the old conflicts alive while also waging new wars. In a speech last year, he unveiled his new war strategy against the so-called Islamic State which he touted as a threat to “the people of Iraq and Syria and the broader Middle East – including American citizens, personnel and facilities.”
His new war, which according to him was to “degrade and ultimately destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria”, had no time limit and as in the case of Iraq war, it also bypassed the UN. It was to be implemented through a coalition of the willing partners ostensibly with limited American involvement in military terms. It thus involved ‘smart power’ with the US providing only ‘training, intelligence and equipment’ to those fighting the IS.
As he approaches the end of his presidency, it seems Obama is seeking to create a legacy of his own and finding a place for himself in the category of America’s ‘doctrinaire’ presidents. No wonder, we now hear of a new ‘Obama doctrine’ based on ‘engagement and diplomacy’ with no compromise on military superiority.
In historical perspective, whatever the worth of Obama’s doctrine, he has been shattering the old ‘barriers’ in US policies towards countries like Burma, Cuba and now Iran. It was his policy of direct talks with Iran since 2009 that finally paid dividends in the form of the landmark Iran nuclear deal signed in Vienna on July 14, 2015. Ironically, as diplomats in Vienna were struggling to wrap up the agreement, the US military unveiled the testing of its latest version of a bunker-busting bomb which at 15 tons is so powerful that strategists said could cripple Tehran’s most heavily fortified nuclear complexes including the one underground. The timing of this show of military hand was not coincidental.
In a calculated practical demonstration of his doctrine, President Obama had flagged a last minute veiled military threat to Iran while also reassuring the domestic opponents of the nuclear deal about the US military superiority. All said and done, Obama’s “extraordinary efforts” did create a climate that finally led to resolving the long-standing crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme. He now seems to be beginning to pay the old debt by earning his credentials as a Nobel Laureate. While the international community with few known exceptions has generally welcomed the Iran deal, President Obama faces an angry showdown in Congress where the US lawmakers have 60 days to review the deal.
How things shape up in the coming months will determine the future of this agreement. President Obama has made it clear that the deal is based on “verifications, not on trust” and has warned that if Iran violates it, the sanctions will be reimposed. Iranian leaders, on their part, have also been saying that if the US and Europeans do not keep their commitments under the deal Iran “has the right to go back to its [nuclear] program as it wishes.” There is still a trust deficit on both sides that will have to be overcome to make the deal work. If it works, it will have a sweeping impact not only on the people of Iran but potentially also on the larger geopolitics of the entire Middle East.
The whole region might even see new realignments. A nuclear-disciplined Iran is being seen as America’s potential regional partner in its current strategies in the Middle East, Persian Gulf and South Asia including Afghanistan. Speculations in the American media suggest that if the Iran nuclear deal goes smoothly through the treacherous spin of the US Congress and their hardliner counterparts in Iran, “it will be the crowning achievement of the Obama doctrine. In a clever combination of what is being described as hard and soft power, Obama already has no shortage of Arab Trojan Horses in his camp.
Given Iran’s fierce sense of independence and a strong tradition of resistance to dictation and domination by any foreign power, it is unlikely that the country will accept any subservient role in any American-led power game. For Iran, its past is present. It will continue to play its role in the region but not at the cost of its history. In this scenario, for Pakistan, there is an opportunity as well as a challenge in reviving its historic multiple linkages with Iran to be able to forge a new regional approach in dealing with common challenges.
Both have a shared role to play in the region. They must build complementarities in their interests. Together, they will not only be a formidable bulwark against the menace of terrorism but also a critical factor in promoting peace and stability in the volatile Gulf region as well as Afghanistan where China and Pakistan are already converting the Pak-Afghan border into an economic gateway for the region, and as a linkage of peace and cooperation with Central Asian countries.
The writer is a former foreign secretary.
Email: [email protected]

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