Eagle Eye

Forecast 2016: Difficult Days Ahead for Washington

15 Jan, 2016    ·   4957

Chintamani Mahapatra weighs in on the US' foreign relations under the Obama administration in the new year

The Obama administration faced many thorny challenges in 2015, and none of those are likely to fade away in 2016. While foreign policy challenges encountered by the US are global, the most critical of those come from a region that is very much part of India’s strategic environment.

To start with, the decision of the Obama administration to fully implement its goal to end its military operations in Afghanistan witnessed a turnaround in the absence of a credible peace process involving the Taliban. The current efforts towards the same will almost certainly fail, unless some miraculous developments take place.

Dynamic Indo-Pak hostility, rising divergences between the Afghan government and the Pakistani establishment, resurgence of the Afghan Taliban, and spread of the Islamic State's (IS) influence into the Af-Pak region will continue to obstruct the US aspiration to make a quiet exit from Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, US military involvement in Afghanistan will progressively thin down, enlarging the political abyss between the US and Pakistan. While the White House and the US State Department will struggle to maintain cordial ties with Pakistan as long as the US troops remain in Afghanistan, the executive-legislative tug of war will increase and the massive US assistance to Pakistan will keep dwindling in the coming months. As Pakistan's chances of severing ties with terrorist organisations appear dodgy and the possibility of China enhancing its economic footprint in Pakistan seems plausible, the trust deficit between Washington and Islamabad is bound to mount. The steady growth of Indo-US strategic cooperation with regular military exercises and advanced arms trade will also impact the state of US-Pakistan ties.

Significantly, the US, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan have begun their quadrilateral cooperation to address the Afghan situation. India is out of this loop. This, precisely, is going to weigh down the US effort of peace-making in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s nightmare is a stronger Indian influence in Afghanistan, and it vetoes an Indian role in peace-making. After so much investment in nation-building activities in Afghanistan, can India afford to allow Pakistan to re-design its strategic depth in that country? Can India really trust the above-mentioned quadrilateral and buy the outcome of their deliberations, even while remaining a bystander to a peace process in its immediate neighbourhood?

The bigger challenge to US engagement beyond South Asia comes from the knotty precariousness in the West Asian strategic scene. The Obama administration withdrew all US troops from Iraq and left a power vacuum that was filled by the IS. While President Obama stopped using the term “global war on terror,” promised to engage with the Islamic world with constructive cooperation, and terminated military operations in Iraq, the end result turned out to be more perilous. The IS declared a caliphate, ran civil administration, sold oil in the international market, beheaded its opponents, and in a way, provoked the US to return to the battle fields of the region. President Obama did practically that, while repeatedly promising not to put boots on the grounds. He bombarded IS facilities from the sky, sent some troops to train Iraqi soldiers, and now, US Special Forces are also selectively engaging in combat.

The expectation that the entry of the Russians and the Iranians to wage war against the IS would be of great benefit were belied in 2015. The Russians are more interested in protecting the Assad regime than combating IS. In the meantime, the US began to complain that Russian planes were also hitting anti-Assad, pro-Western rebels. While Iran is deeply involved in Iraq and is reportedly training, aiding and equipping the private Iraqi militias to take on the IS, Tehran does not coordinate its operations with the US forces. The US backing of Saudi military intervention in Yemen and killings of Tehran-supported Houthi rebels have contributed to more US-Iranian hostility.

In the meantime, the signature achievement of the Obama administration - the Iran nuclear deal - is under stress. It has annoyed the Saudis and angered the Israelis. The other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have paid lip service to the deal, but privately appear quite unhappy. Besides the Shia-Sunni divide currently engulfing the West Asian region, the Persian-Arab cultural conflict is also aggressively surfacing. Arab countries are increasingly using the term 'Arabian Gulf' instead of 'Persian Gulf' and Iranians think that it an affront to their ancient history.

All these developments have contributed to the plight of the US Middle East policy, although critics partially blame US policy for the current crisis in the region. The US has lost its grip over the developments in the region, even as the civil wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya are ravaging on.  Anti-Americanism is at its height among the Shias and Sunnis, Arabs and the Persians, and the most trusted ally, Israel, also appears to have lost faith in the Obama administration for its handling of the Iran nuclear deal. The constant depreciation of energy prices has negatively affected shale gas producers in the US as well. It is very unlikely that the economic crisis, social instability and the political upheavals or even terrorism in West Asia would be satisfactorily handled in this period. American hegemony in West Asia, already facing trouble, will have no respite in 2016.

Developments in the Asia Pacific are no less exigent to US power.

North Korean nuclear obstinacy and Chinese muscle-flexing in the South China Sea raise questions of US credibility among its allies. The competition between the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Chinese-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), Chinese defiance of US calls for multilateral dispute resolution in the South China Sea, Chinese resistance to the movement of US ships or surveillance planes close to islands reclaimed by China, the single-minded construction of potential military facilities by Beijing in the disputed islands of this sea and several other similar developments indicate that Obama’s strategy of a “pivot to Asia” is little more than gesticulation.

In 2016, US' Asian allies such as the Philippines, Australia, Japan and South Korea will expect it to behave more robustly vis-à-vis China. Deployment of ships, flying of bombers, more frequent surveillance, selling military equipment and reiterating US commitment to the security of its allies will not be considered enough. All these actions by the US have hardly altered Chinese policy or behaviour. Nor have threats and sanctions brought North Korea to its knees. As the East Asia Summit (EAS), ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) have proven powerless to manage an assertive China and adamant North Korea, the US may look for alternative methods to deal with provocations in this region in 2016.

The US preoccupation with the unprecedented chaos in the Middle East/West Asia, domestic political polarisation, persistent economic recession in the world, and election year in the US will constrain the Obama administration from taking tough measures abroad. As such, President Obama has tasted the bitterness of some of his liberal approaches. First, he drew a red-line for the Assad regime on the issue of use of chemical weapons and fell short of carrying out the promised response.

Second, he wanted to reset relations with Russia and found that US-Russia relations have deteriorated further. Third, the Budapest Pact promised Ukraine territorial integrity in exchange for its surrender of nuclear weapons. But the US could do precious little when Russia annexed Crimea.

Fourth, critics hold President Obama responsible for continuing violence in Libya, mishandling of the Arab Spring, and the inability to overthrow the Assad regime. Fifth, two key US allies - Israel and Saudi Arabia - feel estranged in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal, and yet there are still there no signs of Iran refraining from missile tests, or supporting  alleged terrorists, or providing muscular support to the Assad regime.

Is there any possibility of President Obama taking appropriate measures to answer his critics? Can he stabilise Libya? Can he bring an end to the Yemeni and Syrian civil wars? Can he get Iran to abide by the nuclear agreement it negotiated with the P5+1? Can he stop the Saudi-Iranian regional Cold War? Can he improve the image of the US in this region? Can he persuade or pressurise China to vacate the occupied islands in the South China Sea? Can he coerce China to withdraw its declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ)? Can he end the US military presence in Afghanistan even after seeing the consequences of total US withdrawal from Iraq?

There is hardly any time for Obama to do so much. Nevertheless, Obama has not done everything wrong. In the complex strategic landscape of the post-9/11 era, everyone witnessed the empowerment of non-state actors. Modern technology has proven to be both a boon and curse. No superpower can flex its muscle and use all its abilities to control, direct and shape global events. Even then, President Obama’s diplomatic success in the Paris Climate Change Conference, in roping in Russia and China to strike a nuclear deal with Iran, in opening a new chapter in US relations with India in the post-Devyani Khobragade episode, are no mean achievements. In the last year of his office, President Obama will certainly try to build on his successes.