He wasn’t as good as he should have been; he won’t be as good as he could be; but I still can’t help feeling a sense of mild relief that Barack Obama is back in the Oval Office. When he takes that three a.m call, a man whose rhyming nickname is “no drama” seems our best bet not to do something stupid in an emergency. Like invade a Muslim country in pursuit of non-existent weapons of mass destruction.
Mind you, I don’t think this confidence in Obama’s pacific tendencies is entirely rational. Mitt Romney was not a neanderthal Republican – he even said that America “can’t kill its way out of the middle east”. And, historically, it tends to be political leaders of the left who get caught in unwinnable wars – Kennedy, Johnson, Tony Blair . Republicans don’t feel quite the same need to prove their military machismo. Ronald Reagan shocked his Republican Party in 1986 when he agreed with Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjaviik to eliminate nuclear weapons within ten years. It didn’t happen, but that’s another story.
Why talk of war? Because Obama is almost certainly going to be involved in one, whether he likes it or not. The Syrian civil war is unlikely to be contained; Iran is being targeted by Israel; Japan and China are rattling sabres over disputed islands in the South China Sea. Nor has al Qaeda departed the historical stage following the assassination of its nominal leader, Osama bin Laden. His revenge-seeking followers only need to get lucky once against the Great Satan and we would be back to 9/11. And of course there are all the unknown unknowns – the unexpected conflicts that could arise almost anywhere as the world economy continues to falter. We cannot rule out trouble on the fringes of Europe – in Turkey, perhaps, or between one of the former communist regimes of eastern Europe and an increasingly authoritarian Russia.
The trouble with being America is that every conflict involves America, one way or another because it is the world’s only remaining superpower and therefore the world’s policeman. And Obama has been clearer than any previous President on his willingness to go to war, at least with Tehran. “As long as I’m president of the United States” he said, “Iran will not get a nuclear weapon”. You can’t get much clearer than that. Some say that Obama’s record on foreign affairs doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
He broke his promise close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and America is still conniving in the torture of terror suspects. He got out of Iraq, and intends to get out of Afghanistan by 2014, but Obama’s drone war is spreading conflict in a haphazard and indiscriminate manner throughout Pakistan and other conflict zones like Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan. The trouble with fly by wire warfare is that it feels like war without tears because no body bags and flag-draped coffins come home. But by lowering the stakes it multiplies the risk of conflict, and increases the scope for anti-American blow-back. If your family is blown up or your home destroyed, you don’t care whether it was by a B52 or an unmanned drone – you just hate the country responsible.
Obama was lucky, in many ways, in his first term as President. Americans had had enough of Iraq and Afghanistan and wanted to get out. Obama got Osama through good fortune, and he hasn’t had to cope with any domestic terrorism. The Arab Spring knocked out a lot of dictators that America had been supporting, like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, but the wave of popular revolutions hasn’t led to too much instability in the wider middle east. At least not yet.
It seems pretty clear, however, that the new governments of the region are going to be more Islamic and therefore hostile to Israel, if only because of the plight of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. The Arab-Israeli dispute is no nearer resolution. Israel is armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons and fears being surrounded by states governed by the Muslim Brotherhood. Obama outraged many of his democrat supporters when he said “I will stand with Israel if they are attacked.” That could be a hostage to fortune.
However, there are still reasons to be cheerful about Obama’s second coming. The most obvious was Mitt Romney himself, who showed little grasp of international affairs and seemed to think that America was still fighting the Cold war. His remarks about Russia being a ‘destabilising force on the world stage [that] needs to be tempered” did not inspire confidence. Putin’s Russia is unattractive but it is no longer a global superpower seeking nuclear hegemony. Nor is China, though Romney came close to describing China as part of the “Evil Empire”. Obama did not try to compete with Romney over how tough he can be on foreign jihadists. Mind you he didn’t have to.
But I think, in the end, it is probably the nature of the new president’s franchise that gives gives ground to believe he not launch military adventures. Barack Hussein Obama’s second election marks the coming of age of the new America of the minorities. Obama won because he hoovered up the votes of hispanics, blacks, native Americans and other members of America’s diverse ethnic groups. Mitt Romney’s downfall was his mono-culturalism: his campaign appeared to represent and speak exclusively to white America. It may be naïve to think that Obama’s multiculturalism makes him less militaristic, but it may just mean he holds back when people from a different culture, with a different religion, find themselves on the wrong side of a confrontation with American interests.
No one who has read his books or his speeches can be in much doubt that Obama is no militarist or American chauvinist, let alone a neo-imperialist eager to impose a “new American century” by military might. Obama is going to have enough on his plate anyway avoiding the “fiscal cliff” that looms as America tries to come to terms with its massive debt crisis. War has been used by unscrupulous leaders in the past as a diversion from domestic economic problems. But having spent $3 trillion on Iraq and Afghanistatn, America hasn’t the money for another war. Perhaps that’s the real reason why Obama is the right man for the times.