Opinion: Obama's Failing Marks
The visit of US President Barack Obama to Cambodia to attend two regional meetings on Nov. 19 showed he isn't the only boy on the block, pivot to Asia or no pivot to Asia. Obama and his vast traveling entourage were humiliated by the way the Cambodian strongman Hun Sen organized protocols. No welcome sign greeted Obama upon his arrival at Phnom Phenh Airport. Rather, the area was strewn with welcoming signs for visiting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.
This actually weakened Obama's prestige in the region, showing the new realities for the US, where ironically very few commentators picked up on the snub. Obama was played off against Wen, who was also visiting the East Asia Summit, showing the world that Obama was powerless and could do nothing but take second place. This humiliation from a veteran in the region is metaphoric of the movie The Mouse that Roared, in which a comic opera principality humiliated major nations. All this took place symbolically in front of the great presidential icon Air Force One.
Obama is also on public record calling for integration of all the peoples in Burma, a particular reference to the Rohingya. The president is taking a big risk here that his visit may come back to haunt him if the Myanmar government continues to take harsh action against the Rohingya, Muslims who have lived on the coast of the Andaman Sea for decades but who have been the target of savage ethnic reprisals over the past two years by the Buddhist Burmese majority.
The days of the SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Alliance) mentality to handle the disputed South China Sea territories are long gone, with too many other grouping proposals on the table up for consideration. Southeast Asia is now a complex melange of countries that don't think in the American black/white color scheme anymore. Obama's failure to reflect on the US involvement in the bombing of Cambodia in the 1960s and 1970s could be indicative of US lack of any sense of history of the region.
Against a wider backdrop, the president has veered close to losing the moral authority that the United States reclaimed after he reversed the Bush Administration's torture policies and took other measures in a bid to banish the unpleasant memories and dark deeds of his predecessor.
But although Obama pulled troops out of Iraq, Afghanistan seems to be a stalemate, not dissimilar to the position of the Soviets in the 1980s in the same theater of war. Obama has actually increased troop numbers rather than reduced them. The quandary he faces when US and NATO troops leave as planned in 2014 is - how long will it take the Taliban to retake control? The Taliban retake, if it happens on the Obama watch, will highlight a military and foreign policy failure which the president will have to wear.
With the changing nature of battle and public criticism of US troop casualties, new technologies available have allowed the pursuit of a more painless way of taking military action as far as the public is concerned through the use of drones. Drones have become Obama's weapon of choice. Easy, convenient, secret, and cheap.
However, drones have created another crack in Obama's armor. Although they enable one side to take surgical action in remote and inaccessible locations, the plain fact is that they operate against international law and amount to nothing more than illegal assassination, especially when they are operated outside theaters of war.
Obama thus appears to have contributed to the creation of a world in which state assassination, even of the US's own citizens without trial, is acceptable. Last year the Obama administration deployed a drone to kill an American, Anwar al-Awlaki without any trial whatsoever. Obama's name and signature are on these executive actions and history will never erase them.
The only thing we don't know is the extent that Obama has used this weapon. US foreign policy has returned to the days in which the CIA had almost free rein to assassinate any "target" in secrecy.
Obama has proved to be a willing commander in chief of the armed forces, presiding over a new era of warfare and taking it to a new level. The raid on the alleged Osama Bin laden in Pakistan also had no legal basis, other than being an 'act of might'. We must take the word of the US that it was actually Osama Bin Laden who was assassinated. This Obama claimed as one of the accomplishments of his first term. The only apparent difference in the Bush and Obama narrative is the finesse that Obama can put to what he says.
Against these transgressions, a new, more dynamic schema is needed by the Obama advisers to engage the region with any true meaningfulness. It isn't just Cambodia. The rest of Asia is full of potential mine fields and potential flash points--like North Korea, which Obama will need more skill than he has shown to date to handle, especially if a crisis develops -- as one may well do with the current Kim's current threat to test long-range missiles that the North boasts could reach Los Angeles.
So far the administration has often been caught speechless when crises arise as the cabinet in Washington and close advisers grope for a position and strategy on each matter. This initial silence to arising world events signals the complexity the administration faces in a world that Washington can no longer dominate.
Reforming the world financial system, no. Peace in the Middle East, no. An end-game in Syria, no. Human rights and dignity, no, not this president. On human rights, Obama's actions are far from the spirit and doctrines of Martin Luther King.
With the numbers in both houses of Congress the way they are, there is an inability to implement any visionary domestic agenda. Just look at the current haggling on tax measures between the President and Congress.
Perhaps the best place where Obama could develop a legacy is to follow the footsteps of the former President Richard Nixon, disgraced as Nixon later became for domestic high crimes and misdemeanors that forced his resignation in the face of threatened impeachment. The legacy that Obama could carve out for his administration is to develop a collaborative working relationship with China, which ironically a large proportion of US big business seek, as this is in corporate America's best interests.
Divide-and-conquer strategies don't work anymore. It's going to be about finding common ground and mutual interests in each region of the world, where cooperation and collaboration results from dialogue. This could be the soundest strategy to bring lasting peace, prosperity and an Obama legacy.
Cooperation with China would balance the world order at bargain basement prices, which could bring a dividend of new levels of prosperity and a new age of global relations. Where Obama has failed with the US Congress he could triumph within the Great Hall of the People.
Does Obama have the wisdom to see this?
Most often US presidencies are shaped on external events such as the Great Depression, World War II, the Cuban crisis, the Vietnam War, the Iranian hostage crisis, the fall of the Soviet Union, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and 9/11, etc. Legacies need definitive action to develop and be remembered. So Obama's opportunity for legacy maybe something nobody foresees today.
To date the Obama phenomenon has been more hype than substance, a presidency more symbolic for the values that the Constitution of the United States stands for rather than any pivot towards any substantial changes in society.
However with the record of service rendered to date the final question is how would a President Obama be able to handle any real crisis? His biggest test may yet be still ahead of him.