Cautious Foreign Policy is Best Option for Obama: By Murari Sharma

US President Barack Obama is pondering whether the United States should attack the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria from air in Syria. He has already ordered the bombing of ISIS militants in Iraq. The trouble is, in Iraq, these militants are out to topple a friendly regime and, in Syria, they are fighting against an enemy regime. It is a colossal moral dilemma for a Nobel Peace Prize winner president, which raises serious questions about US foreign policy.

Obama is trying to find a consistent narrative and a seemingly coherent principle to justify his action between two contrasting objectives. In Iraq, he wants to protect the Shia-dominated government from the menacing onslaught of the ISIS militants. In Syria, he wants President Assad, an Alawite Shia, removed, and the ISIS militants could fulfill his objective. The ISIS has already established its control over large swaths of Iraq and Syria.

This is not the first time, however, that the United States has faced such a foreign policy dilemma. During the Cold War, such dilemmas were common but easy to handle. The overarching principle, motivation and justification were to keep the friends in and enemies out at any cost. Whenever there was a conflict between Washington’s objective of promoting democracy and protecting friendly government, it was always the latter that prevailed. The US claimed its democratic superiority and controlled the democracy and free market narrative.

This made possible for the United States to stand for democracy in some countries and continue supporting military dictatorship in others, across Asia, Africa and Latin America. The US backed dictators in Pakistan and the Philippines and democrats in Costa Rica and Japan, without anyone doubting consistency or principle. The only requirement for them to have US support was to have a US-friendly regime.

But several factors have rendered this relatively simple choice of the past a complex phenomenon now. The end of the Cold War and the narrowing of the ideological divided has weakened the United States’ control over the democratic and free market narrative. The media of other countries – Al Jazeera, RT, CCTV – have expanded their reach globally. What is more, anyone having a smartphone has become a self-appointed journalist capable to communicate their different narratives with the rest of the world with a click of a button.

If the US pursues two contradictory policies on the same issue now, it cannot resort to the Cold War justification. It will be caught and ridiculed. Russian and Egyptian media have already been driving home the contractions between the police’s heavy-handedness in Ferguson, Missouri, and the US criticism of other countries about their human rights record. This makes Obama’s task inordinately more difficult in principle. Politically, the Republicans will drag him over the coal no matter what policy he embraces. 

This applies to any US action against the ISIS. In principle, in Syria, Obama has supported, with money and equipment, the Sunni forces that are fighting against President Assad, and these forces include the ISIS militants as well. In Iraq, the US air force is already pounding the ISIS militants. If Washington wants Assad removed, then it should also be ready to see the demise of the Shia-dominated friendly regime in Iraq.

Politically, the Republicans have already criticized Obama for not using force to remove Assad from power in Syria and for delaying attacks on the ISIS militants in Iraq. They will trash him no matter whether he orders the air force to attack the ISIS jihadist or not. First, the Republicans are divided over whether or not the US should support the Sunni militants in Syria. Second, since the Obama-care is losing its appeal as the lightening rod to galvanize their base for the elections due in November 2014, the Republicans are looking for anything that could improve their electoral prospects.

However, inaction is not an option for Obama, owing to his own ratings and to the core interests of the United States. Obama is deeply unpopular at home with his approval rating in the low 40s, and this rating has been damaging the prospects of the Democrats to win the House and retain the Senate in the upcoming vote. If he could do something the majority of the American people liked, his ratings will improve and his party will score better in the upcoming polls.

In addition, the US cannot sit back and let the ISIS militants establish an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria, spread their influence in the entire Muslim world, and bring the war to western countries. The ISIS can bring the war to the West in two ways. First, the ISIS will export terror to the West. Now thousands of Muslim citizens of Western countries have joined the ISIS jihad. When they come home, they will bring terror with them. Second, the ISIS will control and manipulate oil resources in the Middle East, attack Western interests there and elsewhere, and eventually, wage war against the West for global domination.

As Al-Qaida before, the ISIS has been inspiring militants elsewhere. In Libya, the Sunni Islamists have already taken control of much of the country, including the capital. The wildfire will only spread in the days ahead if the ISIS are not checkmated and pushed back soon. 

Which means Obama will have to withhold support from the Sunni forces fighting against President Assad in Syria, decimate the ISIS elements there, and let Assad stay and finish the ISIS in his country, while Washington supports the Baghdad government to do the same in Iraq. It will also have to take the initiative to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian problem and Russia-Ukraine tension.

Nothing is more powerful than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in uniting the Muslims around the world. The ongoing cycle of violence in which Israel has killed more than 2,000 Palestinians in Gaza, more than 70 percent of them innocent women and children, has outraged not only the Muslims but also a large segment of the population in the West and elsewhere. The United Nations has decided to investigate war crimes committed by Israel. The United States should push for the two-state solution and end the recurring cycle of violence there without delay.

The United States has picked up a fight with Russia over Ukraine as if this was the appropriate time to do so. Sure, it was wrong for Russia to annex Crimea from Ukraine and support the ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine against Kiev. At the same time, it was wrong for the United States to fueling anti-Russian sentiments in Ukraine by supporting the Maidan uprising against the ousted pro-Russian President Yanukovych.

Now no one can undo what has already happened. However, what the US can still do is tell both Russia and Ukraine to cease the fight and negotiate a peace deal that ensures Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity and Russia’s strategic interest. This will permit the West to focus its resources on defeating the ISIS and everything it stands for. The ISIS is a greater and more immediate threat to the West than Russia.

Western sanctions are hurting Russia. However, they are not enough to force Moscow to abandon its strategic interest in Ukraine. Meanwhile, Russian sanctions are also hurting Western economies. Fruit and vegetable farmers have been protesting in many countries by destroying their unsold produces in the street. The next will be European manufacturers who have been losing business due to the sanctions.

If Western countries impose additional sanction, Russia may punish European countries by turning off the gas spigots in winter. More than 30 percent energy consumed in Europe comes from Russia. Moscow has been already building new markets elsewhere for its gas. It is, therefore, madness to engage in such a trade war between the West and Russia when the Islamists have emerged as the more immediate and menacing threat to the West.

So far, President Obama has pursued a careful, diplomacy-focused foreign policy. The neocon hawks have not liked it, but the majority of American people have. Outside the US, Obama is still quite popular despite the spygate exposed by the NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The world is yet to be what Fukuyama declared as the end of history. Neither is it what the neocons in Washington see it. Cautious but principled foreign policy is still the best option for Obama.


Modi, India and Nepal: Murari Sharma

The newly elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid his second foreign visit to Nepal, after Bhutan. He won hearts and minds of India-weary Nepalis with some concrete offers and many right sound bites. Suddenly even the arch-anti-Indian establishment in Kathmandu seemed swooned by Modiphilia. The question is: Will this suddenly discovered bonhomie last?

This is one of the occasions when the establishment Nepalis have found little to accuse India about. Modi was a whiff of fresh air in otherwise stale Nepal-India relations. Often, the main South Block interlocutor has been the joint secretary, north. Only occasionally have Indian politicians crossed the line in the sand drawn by the South Block.

In the last couple of decades only thrice before have Indian prime ministers veered from the bureaucratic line on New Delhi’s Nepal policy. The first time was when  Prime Minister Morarji Desai agreed to separate the trade and transit treaties, which was a longstanding demand of Nepal, despite the bureaucracy’s preference to continue with a single treaty covering both.

The second time Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral proclaimed that India would engage with its smaller and friendly neighbors without insisting on reciprocity, and it came to be known as the Gujaral Doctrine. The the bureaucracy did not like and ditched as soon as Gujral stepped down.

However, it is wrong to believe that the Indian bureaucracy is anti-Nepal. It is not. I have dealt with the South Block and found most people friendly towards Nepal and willing to help us. But like all bureaucracies, Indian bureaucracy is also status quo-ist. It does not want to shake things up. It wants stability and hates change in the way things are viewed or done, which poses new challenges for it. This is true for the Nepali bureaucracy as well, of which I have been a part for more than two decades.

Now it is Modi who has crossed the comfort zone set by the bureaucrats.

Modi said India wanted to help Nepal, not interfere in its affairs, and asked it to take leadership in shaping the course of the country. He repeatedly said Gautam Buddha was born in Nepal, in contrast to what he had recently mentioned in India. He announced a development loan of one billion US dollars for Nepal; cooperation in the energy, transport and agriculture sectors; increase in scholarships. He also pledged to start the execution of the Pancheshwar Multipurpose Project within a year.

Sometimes, the delivery of message becomes more important than the message itself. India has been supporting Nepal in walks of life, and Modi’s promise is not necessarily out of the ordinary. But he mesmerized the Nepalis with the freshness of his delivery, and it touched Nepali hearts and minds.

He delivered his message in the Constituent Assembly, part of it in Nepali, looking straight into the eyes of the Assembly members; refused to read the written text prepared by the South Block; and conveyed his message in a folksy way with a fair dose of humor. His HIT (highway, Information-way and Transmission-way) underlined the priority poignently and folksily. His quip about youth and water that they leave the hills was both reveling and funny.

By paying humble obeisance and making generous contribution to Pashupatinath, Modi won the backing of the religious sector. He asked Nepalis from the hills and the plains that Nepal needs to develop in its entirety, and regionalism will not be good for Nepal.

So, there was a message for everyone and the message was conveyed in a way that everyone liked, except the very fringe elements, though he had problems back home. His foes criticized him for his generous homage to Pashupatinath.

Not least, Jit Bahadur Saru Magar, Modi’s Nepali godson, whom he brought along with him, sent a powerful symbol and message that he knew something about Nepal and he cared about it. Now the question is whether he will be able to deliver on his pledges and symbols.

It will difficult for Modi to loosen the grip of the Indian Congress Party on the state and its bureaucracy. The ICP has ruled India much of the time after its independence in 1947. State functionaries would not be fully committed to Modi’s program and approach until they believe the Modi phenomenon is going to last, and the ICP will be back in next five years.

My sense is the Indian bureaucracy is waiting to see just how far Modi goes. They want to know whether he is going to follow Gujral, strong in principles and weak in implementation. At the same time, it is aware that Modi could be a different game in town. His party has a majority in the parliament and, with the coalition partners, his strength increases even further, while their longtime mentor, ICP, was seriously humiliated in the recent general election. And he has already reduced the size of the cabinet.

On the most contentious issues, the revision of the 1950 treaty, Modi has followed the existing line. India has always expressed its willingness to revise the treaty, which most Nepalis believe is unequal. However, it insists that when the 1950 treaty is revised, all subsequent treaties founder on the mother treaty should also be revised.

The 1950 treaty is already revised in practice. Both sides have failed to observe the treaty provisions. India has not consulted with Nepal on its security issues and does treat Nepali nationals and businesses as Indian nationals and businesses. Neither does Nepal provide such treatment to Indian subjects. But many Nepalis are worried that India could insist on the literal implementation of the treaty anytime. The treaty is outdated and needs to be revised to reflect this reality, more than to make it equal.

In fact, the treaty itself is equal. What makes it unequal is a set of issues: The signatories from the two sides and letters signed afterwards as part of the treaty. But the issue at the core but publicly unsaid is the burden of equality a smaller partner could not impose on the bigger partner and could not bear equally.

Say for instance, if India allows 1% Nepalis to settle in India, that would be hardly 2.6 million people in a much bigger area. If Nepal has to accommodate 1% of Indians, it will have to accept 12.5 million people in a much smaller area. So what Nepal is really looking for equality-plus, in which ii enjoys the existing benefits while India free it from similar obligations and from Indian security umbrella..

This is essential for Nepal and difficult to deliver for India. Canada enjoys such equality-plus relations with the United States. Washington has agreed to such provisions, for Canada and Mexico are the only two countries American shares common border with. India shares its border with 10 countries, all but China smaller than itself. All other small neighbors will ask for the equality-plus provisions for them as well.

While this issue, complex as it is, awaits an amicable compromise, other areas of cooperation should be pursued with vigor and determination. When the United States opened its door to China, Beijing said the Taiwan issue could wait for another 100 years. Now America and China have become the biggest trading partners and much of American deficit financing is backed by Chinese money.

What Modi is able to deliver in action will depend as much on India as it will on Nepal. However, there is little room for confidence on Nepal’s part. About a year ago, an officials of the Ministery of External Affairs had said to Nepali journalists that Nepali leaders never raise issue to national importance; they only talk about their personal interest.

Modi has opened the door. It is for our leaders to use the door to the mutual benefits of the two countries, while protecting national interest without engaging in unhelpful polemics, which have already started.