Difficult legacy

Print edition : November 06, 2009

DAVID E. SANGER is eminently qualified to write about what President Barack Hussein Obama has inherited from his predecessor. As the chief Washington correspondent of The New York Times, Sanger accompanied President George W. Bush on his official visits abroad and has had access to many of the world leaders Bush met with during his tenure.

Candidate Obamas words Yes, we can, symbolising the paradigm shift he would make as President, resonated not only through the United States but also the rest of the world. The subtitle of the book reads The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power.

Sanger begins with an apt quotation from Winston Churchills My Early Life about the unwisdom of starting a war. Let us learn our lessons. Never, never, never, believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on that strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. Obviously, the reference is to the two wars on Iran and Afghanistan that Bush started with more enthusiasm than judgment. Sanger wants to look backward at the seismic events that led America to lose so much standing and leverage in the world and looks forward to re-imagine ways we can rebuild our influence and power. Clearly, the book is not an attempt by a concerned global citizen to find out what went wrong with the Bush presidency and how best President Obama can lead the international community towards building a better world. The motivation is rather patriotic and nationalistic. In brief, the U.S. deaths count, not necessarily the Iraqi ones.

Sanger wants to explore the huge costs of distraction under Bush. By focussing on Iraq in a reckless manner, Bush failed by and large to disarm the U.S. enemies. Iran pressed ahead with its plans for the nuclear bomb; Al Qaeda saw a chance to regroup; the Taliban saw its chance to retake territory; and other militants saw their chance to destabilise Pakistan. The North Koreans set off a nuclear blast. China concluded that a distracted U.S. was unable to react effectively to its rise.

Sanger narrates in a chapter significantly titled Regime-Change Fantasies a little-known incident that throws much light on the relations between the post-Shah Iran and the U.S. In November 1979, Robert Gates, 36, a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer deputed to the White House, accompanied Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carters National Security Adviser, to Algiers where the 10th anniversary of the Algerian Revolution was being celebrated. The Americans were there not exactly to celebrate the revolution but to meet with revolutionary Irans Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan. Ayatollah Khomeini was in Iran as the Supreme Leader. The CIA had earlier confidently predicted, when Khomeini came to Teheran from exile, that he would not last more than one month. One day before Brzezinski and Gates called on Bazargan, President Carter had invited the Shah to come to the U.S. as he needed urgent medical treatment. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance had warned Carter of the likely adverse reaction in Iran. Brzezinski told Bazargan that the U.S. wanted good relations with Iran and that the two countries should together oppose Soviet expansionism. In reply, Bazargan and his aides chanted: Give us back the Shah. Brzezinski replied, To return the Shah to you would be incompatible with our national honour. The Iranian reaction was mild and the meeting ended inconclusively. Three days later, the U.S. Embassy was occupied and two weeks later Bazargan was removed. Such was the genesis of the embassy hostage crisis that would dominate the Carter presidency and deny him a second term. Secretary of Defence Gates recalls, Every President since has tried to open a dialogue with the Iranians and none of them have turned out well. And a couple nearly got presidents in jail.

The key ingredients of the Bush legacy are inclusion of Iran in his axis of evil and his insistence on Iran discontinuing uranium enrichment even when there was no evidence that Iran was pursuing a programme to make atomic bombs. Bush got approved an amount of $400 million to destabilise Iran. Though Obama has sent some conciliatory signals to Iran right from the beginning, he has failed so far to achieve a breakthrough. The direct talks between Iran and the U.S. in Geneva (October 2009) is an important indicator of the prospects of reconciliation between the two. Has Obama taken too long to make the right move?

The reader is left to wonder: Does Obama realise that he will not be able to do what he wants to do in Iraq and Afghanistan without Irans support? Maybe. Does he realise that the best way to prevent Iran from pursuing the bomb option is to agree to enrichment up to the industrial grade and flood Iran with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors? Maybe. Does he have the freedom to overrule Israel, which wants military confrontation with Iran and the resultant chaos in the region? We do not know.

If Obama wants to signal Iran that he is serious, all he has to do is de-freeze the Iranian deposits in U.S. banks. It seems, at least for the time being, that a good part of the Bush legacy prevails. We have to conclude that so far Obama has not succeeded in putting a reset button on the relations with Iran, and the inheritance from Bush weighs heavy. Let us hope that the resetting of the button has begun.

The next section is on Afghanistan. Bush rushed to attack Iraq without completing the task he had undertaken in Afghanistan, assuming that the task was achievable. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen summed up well the U.S. predicament when he said in late 2007: In Afghanistan we do what we can. In Iraq we do what we must.

Bush had a weakness he liked to compare himself to historys great ones. In April 2002, he went to the Virginia Military Academy from where General Marshall had graduated 101 years earlier. Bush said, Marshall knew that our military victory against enemies in the Second World War had to be followed by a moral victory that resulted in better lives for individual human beings. The Marshall Plan for Afghanistan turned out to be more rhetoric than action.

This reviewer understands well that for Obama the presidential candidate, it was politically correct to endorse the war in Afghanistan, especially since he had opposed the war in Iraq. By endorsing the war in Afghanistan, Obama shored up his national security credentials. But as President, he has the option to ask, and seek an answer to, the fundamental question: Is it a winnable war within a sustainable time frame and cost, with the means available to the U.S. and its allies? If the answer is in the negative, as seems to be the case, he can take consequential action. Has he asked the fundamental question? It appears not. He has basically arranged for a surge in Afghanistan, and the thought of a defeat a la Vietnam does not seem to have been taken seriously. Obama risks repeating the historic error of another young President, John Kennedy, who, much against his better judgment, permitted the CIA to go ahead with the disastrous Bay of Pigs operation, and later through the lesser-known Operation Mongoose, which generated the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The section on Pakistan, How Do You Invade An Ally?, is indeed insightful. Sanger went to visit Khalid Kidwai, the man in charge of keeping Pakistans nuclear weapons safe from Al Qaeda. Since 9/11, Washington started worrying about the safety of Pakistans nuclear weapons. An amount of $100 million was secretly set apart for this purpose. Asked about the threat from Al Qaeda, Kidwai told Sanger that it was overblown rhetoric. Kidwai claimed that the security system was safe and that there would never be any repeat of A.Q. Khan. Sanger was hardly convinced. He also failed to get a clear answer to the question about how the secret fund of $100 million was spent. Kidwai proudly told Sanger that Pakistan did six tests against Indias five in 1998.

In October 2001, Bush sent Secretary of State Colin Powell for a general-to-general talk with Pervez Musharraf about the safety of Pakistans nuclear weapons. Powell made no headway. In 2005, Musharraf told the author that any hint or rumour that he was allowing American hands to be put on Pakistans great source of power would be a death knell for any Pakistani leader. Washington considered and rejected the idea of giving the PAL (Permissive Action Links) technology to Pakistan. The PAL works like an ATM up to a point. If you type in the correct numbers, you get your money from the ATM. In the case of the PAL, when you type in the wrong numbers more than once, the nuclear-armed missile will get disabled. On its part, the Pakistan Army was not keen to get the PALs from the U.S. They feared that the Pentagon might disable the missiles through remote action. As far as Sanger could make out, under Bush no real progress was made in securing Pakistans nuclear weapons.

Sanger writes of A.Q. Khans second thoughts about his lifes work. In January 2008, he wrote to a colleague that it was the traumatic moments in his early life, starting with his familys flight from Bhopal to Karachi at the time of Partition and, later, Indira Gandhis dismemberment of Pakistan that prompted him to go in for the bomb. But he never dreamt or thought of army rule for all time and in retrospect what he did looks like a mistake. But Khan shows his mettle when he ends his letter, No use of self-pity.

Initially, Bush was taken for a ride by Musharraf, and the latter was seen as a reliable and true ally in the war on terror. By January 2008, he began to doubt Musharrafs ability and willingness to deliver what the U.S. wanted in the war in Afghanistan. He slowly, and reluctantly, understood the reasons for the Musharraf policy of keeping the Taliban option open to be used when a weary U.S. eventually started withdrawing. Before visiting Washington in July 2008, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani arranged for a raid on a big madrassa and told Bush about it. Bush told his interlocutor that he had heard that some of these raids and arrests amounted to less than met the eye. Gilani was puzzled. A Bush aide told Sanger that he would not call it the Presidents worst meeting with a foreign leader ever. At the joint press conference with Gilani, Bush complimented Pakistan as a vibrant democracy and said twice that he respects Pakistans sovereignty. Of course, he did not make any mention of the order he had already issued to the Special Forces to enter Pakistani territory.

Sanger draws an important lesson from Bushs dealings with Musharraf. Bush invested far too much confidence in his personal relationship with a single strong man, exactly the mistake that he rightly criticised Bill Clinton for making in dealing with Russia during the [Boris] Yeltsin years. Bush thought that he could pick up the phone, talk to Musharraf, and get what he wanted from Pakistan. It is only in the past 18 months or so that Bush started to realise that he was wrong about Musharraf.

After two sections on North Korea and China, the author takes us to the epilogue. He starts with a quotation from Theodore H. Whites The Making of the President 1960 to the effect that Kennedy never believed that men were powerless to ask new questions or define new rules, or that individuals were helpless as the engines of history rolled towards them. After a year in office, Obama cannot blame his predecessor any longer for the mess he left. Part of Obamas task in the first year will be to destroy four illusions, two created by Bush and two created by his team during the election campaign. The first is that the international system installed after the Second World War, with the U.S. at its centre, can last. The second is that the rest of the world will naturally seek to emulate the U.S. model and embrace democracy, free expression, and free market. There is the third illusion, created by Obamas team, to the effect that free trade caused Americas problems. In other words, the jobs migrated to Bangalore. The last one is that America will not need to use the Big Stick.

It is exceedingly difficult to predict the course of a presidency. Bush in his campaign projected a humble foreign policy. But, in fact, Bush entered the White House with much certitude, but little compass. Obamas situation is different. The troubles are so large that the country and the world is primed for big solutions. Obama cannot only deal with the crises but also change the system that generates such crises. Dean Acheson, President Harry S. Trumans Secretary of State, wrote about being present at the creation. Obama and his wise women and men can be present at the recreation.

Sangers book should be read by the global citizen in order to understand the U.S. psyche. There is a frank admission that Bush messed it up. There is hope that Obama will undo the mess, if he can get his act right. But, for the reader, the key question is whether Obama is getting it right. His talking to Iran is a move in the right direction. His move to hasten the establishment of a Palestinian state might boomerang. If he persists, he might lose his second term, as Carter did when he gave asylum to the Shah. It will be more prudent to focus on the Israel-Palestine imbroglio during the second term. But, the U.S. public will judge him primarily in terms of the pace and strength of the economic recovery.

Politics is the art of the possible and there is much that we expect of Obama. He is not a surgeon who can cut away the toxic Bush legacy from Americas body politic. The more he trusts his own good sense, intuition and values, the better he will do.

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