Obama: What a let-down he’s been?

Obama, as is often said, will always be more popular than his policies. It is impossible not to pay attention to what he says; he’s still viewed as the well-meaning guy who broke some real barriers to get where he did. When he took oath for a second term in office, it appeared that a centrist had transformed into a bleeding-heart liberal, as John Cassidy wrote in the New Yorker. Then, the good bloke with a whiff of fresh air at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. picked up the Nobel early on. It was a Nobel for not what one had achieved – Obama had just got into office – but for what one potentially could. He got the Nobel just for not being Bush.

Was it a premature Nobel? The president doesn’t seem to have achieved half of what people think he is capable of. As Obama walked into the White House, my excitement was about the possibility of being part of a historic generation which, under the Obama presidency, could see a huge ship turn around and change course. Just as another generation had seen the Cold War end or the two Germanys become one. I thought progress would be made on Palestine, that diplomats would be given the upperhand in solving the mess in Afghanistan, that Guantanamo would be closed down and that the War on Terror would be fought in a more effective but less hysterical way. Unfortunately, I don’t see American foreign policy changing much.

I remember discussing some of these outcomes with Vali Nasr, now the dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins University. We spent considerable time talking politics when he was in Delhi for the Hindustan Times Summit a few years ago.

Nasr, a former senior adviser to the office of Obama’s Special Representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan, or SRAP, stunned the State Department in March when excerpts of his new book, The Dispensable Nation, were published in the Foreign Policy magazine.

Nasr tells us that Obama ignored critical advice from his Special Representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan, the late Richard Holbrooke, the broker of Dayton peace accord that ended the Balkans war. Holbrooke knew that the gargantuan counterinsurgency and military offensives wouldn’t work. The Taliban were too entrenched to be wiped out and that Afghanistan’s official administration and government too mired in corruption. Holbrooke wanted “reconciliation” to be made the cornerstone of a wider strategy involving not just the Afghan conflict but also that of Pakistan and Iran.

The White House didn’t agree, Nasr says, because this would make Obama look “soft”. Nasr says Obama is too concerned with satisfying public opinion to take strategic decisions. Nasr, an expert on Iran, also feels that the Obama administration, for all its talk of giving diplomacy a chance, hasn’t given Iran the real sops that could get it to stop enriching uranium.

Some recent analyses, including Nasr’s, point to an Obama pursuing Bush-era policies under a silver tongue. Too concerned with public image and too mindful of critics. Obama should be aiming at leaving a mark on global politics, not America’s alone. It seems he may fall short on both. More worryingly, the president has relied on the show of American force on most issues of his presidency, rather than on diplomacy. That doesn’t quite make him a dove, as James Traub wrote in a Wall Street Journal review of Nasr’s new book.

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