Barack Obama

The limits of Barack Obama's fancy words

Kevin Rafferty says the list of US foreign policy flashpoints grows longer

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 January, 2013, 2:06am


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According to one of his Republican antagonists, US President Barack Obama's inaugural address this week was one of the finest in recent US history.

But even the finest rhetoric does not easily translate into action, and both the US and the world are pretty much as grubby as when Obama first wooed them with his flights of fancy words four years ago.

For America's international role, Obama risks being distracted by domestic dogfights. For Asia, especially for anyone concerned about relations with a rising China, it is potentially bad news that the US seems to have little space for serious consideration of intricate issues involving complicated questions of balance between countries.

Obama has a heaped plateful of domestic problems, starting with the unresolved debt and deficit issues and a supposedly recovering weak economy. Unemployment of 7.8 per cent is one indicator of a country with big problems.

A blog post circulating on the internet listed "75 economic numbers from 2012 that are almost too crazy to believe", which show a sick, not merely an unequal, society: among them, 48 per cent of Americans and 57 per cent of all children are either "low income" or living in poverty; a million schoolchildren are homeless; four major US banks each have US$40 trillion exposure to derivatives; only 24.6 per cent of jobs are considered "good jobs".

Obama is presumably searching for his place in history in announcing new crusades for tougher gun controls, for action on climate change and for gay rights. To non-Americans, these campaigns might look reasonable or even sensible, but in the US each has attracted opposition ranging from bloody-minded to crazy.

In foreign policy, the US faces myriad flashpoints, all sharing the same feature that a single small change could produce kaleidoscopically large repercussions.

Stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons is the top priority of many commentators in Washington's think tanks: if Tehran goes nuclear, it will encourage a host of other countries to do the same, either for protection or just to show they can.

The Arab spring - regarded as good - has taken on a worrying Islamic turn that has caught Washington without a properly thought-out policy.

Obama naturally did not want to be sucked into wasting American lives far from home as his predecessor did in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Libya, Muammar Gaddafi was toppled reasonably quickly, which seemed good news, but there has been a price to pay, with political uncertainty and the spread of the former Libyan dictator's weapons to radicals in Mali and Algeria, countries not hitherto on the US global map.

In Syria, the discredited Assad regime clings to power, thanks partly to support from Beijing and Moscow, but only at the price of daily bloodshed.

In foreign policy especially, Obama's fine promises have been exposed as clouds of rhetoric. In the Middle East, leaders are asking, "Where is America?" In Beijing, by comparison, China is all too aware and resents that Obama's pivot to Asia is intended to undermine China's rise.

The truth is that, in this increasingly global world, the old rules will not do. The US global policeman no longer has the energy and resources, or the benevolence to be trusted, to preserve order.

China's insistence that a country's affairs are only its own business is helping to produce disasters in Syria and the Middle East. In its backyard, Beijing's prickly insistence that it alone owns exclusive rights to its far-flung waters is sparking potentially dangerous nationalism that could destroy the Asian economic miracle. Sadly, Obama offered no new global vision; and the new rulers in Beijing are looking inward.

Kevin Rafferty is a political commentator