Obama: Pacifist or prisoner of the system?

By Ameen Izzadeen
International relations are a dynamic field of study. With the change in perceptions of national interest and national security, today’s enemies can become friends tomorrow. Allies can become avowed enemies. Similarly, today’s superpower can become a spent power in time to come. The US-centric world order of today could become an X-centric world order, with the X here being any country that will one day supersede the United States.
What I want to stress here is that world politics is in a state of flux. So are the foreign polices of nations. Who could have imagined a few years ago that Iran and the United States would hold heart-to-heart talks and the US Secretary of State and the Iranian foreign Minister would sip coffee sitting at the same table? Who would have imagined a few years ago that the leaders of the US and Cuba would shake hands one day and open embassies in each other’s capitals? In 1973, when Cuban leader Fidel Castro was asked when he thought his country would establish diplomatic relations with the United States, he said it could only happen when the Catholic Church had a Latin American Pope and the United States an Afro-American President. It was a prophetic message, though Castro was more than certain that neither of these two would happen. But they happened during his lifetime and contemporarily, too.
It was only months ago that Fidel Castro, the iconic revolutionary leader, described the US-led NATO as a Nazi force. It was only a little more than a year ago, he slammed US President Obama as being “bellicose and hypocritical”.
But on Monday, Cuba and the United States expressed optimism when they opened embassies in each other’s capitals after a gap of five and a half decades, symbolically bringing to an end one remaining vestige of the old Cold War. Cuba’s foreign minister Bruno Rodríguez was in Washington for the flag-raising ceremony at his country’s new Washington embassy. He was hosted by his US counterpart, John Kerry — the first formal meeting between the foreign ministers of the two countries since 1958.
Ahead of Monday’s historic events, the US initiated several confidence building measures, which include easing of restrictions on travel and foreign currency remittances. In May, President Obama removed Cuba from the US list of countries sponsoring terrorism. But the two countries acknowledge that much more needs to be done before they normalise ties. While diehard socialists in Cuba are still wary of the US moves, they welcome any peaceful resolution of the Cold War conflict. In the US, the opposition to the new détente is equally strong, especially from Republicans relying on the votes of rightwing Cuban Americans. But Kerry, who is expected to visit Havana on August 14 to formally raise the American flag over the US embassy there, explained the virtue of engagement.
“This milestone does not signify an end to the many differences that still separate our governments… But it does reflect the reality that the cold war ended long ago and that the interests of both countries are better served by engagement than by estrangement… Nothing is more futile than trying to live in the past,” he said, signalling a significant shift in the foreign policy of the US.
Cuba says future progress would be contingent upon the end of the trade embargo that has for decades suffocated the Cuban economy and the return of Guantánamo Bay, a Cuban territory where the US is running a notorious prison with detainees being denied rights guaranteed under the Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War. But Kerry said President Obama was keen to lift the trade embargo but he was not clear on the demand for Guantanamo Bay. But making concession for the sake of peace in the US is no easy game, however sincere the intentions of Obama are. He has to deal with an increasingly hostile Congress, which is controlled by Republicans opposed to the thaw in relations with Cuba and Iran.
Foreign policy is an extension of a nation’s domestic policy and is determined by a nation’s national interest. In a democracy, foreign policy is not the prerogative of the Executive branch alone. The legislature has a role to play. In addition, the people’s mood also matters. But in a capitalist democracy, apart from the legislature and the public mood, also playing key roles are lobbies and captains of capitalism.
Given this scenario, Obama is facing a daunting task. On the one hand, he appears to tread the path of pacifism without compromising the US national interest or security. On the other, his idealist realism is checked by forces such as the Neoconservatives, the Zionists, the capitalists and political opportunists.
Given these hurdles, Obama’s achievements in the world political arena are praiseworthy. He seriously and genuinely tried to bring peace to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He sent Kerry on mission after mission to the Middle East for talks with leaders of Israel and Palestine and even set a deadline. But, alas, his efforts came a cropper, largely because of the intransigence of Israel’s hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Crestfallen, Obama then shifted his focus from what he could not achieve to what he thought he could achieve. When he decided to re-double efforts to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba and bring to fruition talks with Iran on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme, he had successfully completed a drawdown of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and avoided being dragged into a war with Syria.
If talks are the means by which Obama tries to make peace with Cuba and Iran, he has adopted pressure tactics to check China’s militaristic ambitions in the South China and East China Seas. With regard to the United States’ dispute with Russia over Ukraine, it is Obama the prisoner of the system who is making the moves, instead of Obama the idealistic-realist. While Obama the idealistic realist may prefer talks with Russia, the system wants him to treat Russia as the number one enemy of the US. Last week, two nominees for the top positions of the US armed forces told the US Senate confirmation hearing that Russia was the main threat — an existential threat — to the US.
Will Obama succeed in his efforts and emerge as a man of peace for the history books? He has time till January to shift his focus from what he could to what he could not. Without succumbing to pressure from the Zionist lobby, let’s hope he will revive the Middle East peace process and help the Palestinians achieve statehood. Let’s also hope, he will take steps to free the Middle East from the clutches of ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) terrorism.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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