Judging by the timing of his Asian trip President Barack Obama seemed confident he can get what he wants with the US economic policy.
He left behind the critical negotiations on the “fiscal cliff” in order to deepen friendships in Asia and to support Myanmar’s moves towards democracy and the observance of human rights. The Keynesiasm that he has long pushed for — the opposite policy to the one prevailing in Europe where it is self-defeating austerity — looks like being both vindicated and expanded upon. The Republicans are now huffing and puffing in Congress. Obama has nothing to lose since he will not have to fight an election but many of those in Congress with insecure seats will have to fight again for the support of public opinion in the elections two years hence. By then the US economy could well be singing and they will look stupid if they haven’t gone along with the policies that will make this so. Nothing will be more popular — and help both the middle-class and the poor more — than a steep fall in unemployment.
During Obama’s first term, the Republicans had one aim — to make sure Obama didn’t win a second one. This determined their economic policies as well as their hostility to Obama’s historic achievement — the passing of the health care bill which makes sure 30 million poor will have their medical needs paid for. The negotiations with the Republicans in Congress will continue for some time but we can expect a resolution to the “fiscal cliff” dilemma that is in line with the president’s script.
The Republicans failed and Obama won the election more than handsomely. Still one is puzzled why it took until the campaign for Obama to go to town on promoting the virtues of his health reform, the success of his energy and education policies and another dozen of his achievements. He is by nature a bad salesman. He is too cerebral and too self-contained, not to say — the opposite of Bill Clinton — less needy of the applause of the crowd. In the first presidential TV debate, Mitt Romney wiped the floor with him because Obama wasn’t aggressive enough and didn’t know how to deal with an opponent who lied like a second-hand car salesman.
As he was attacking from the right, Romney didn’t highlight Obama’s failings on human rights but it is very much a mixed record and he needs to fix it. Obama did close the CIA’s secret prisons and ban torture (Romney said he would re-introduce them). But he opposed all attempts to assign responsibility for the war crimes committed during the presidency of George W. Bush. He didn’t even support the idea of a public commission to investigate. He has not allowed his use of drones in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen to be subject to judicial review.
He did want to close Guantanamo and allow that detainees be either released or sent for trial in civilian criminal courts. But he was stymied by Congress. He will now work to overcome this blockage and continue to insist that, unlike Bush, the struggle against terrorism must be fought within the confines of the rule of law — both constitutional and international law.
This leads on to the question of US membership of the International Criminal Court, whose actions Obama has invariably supported. He will have to overcome the reservations of the military but he must back them down, telling them that the treaty would only come into effect when it is ratified by Congress and thus only covers future crimes. Besides, if the Pentagon deals with allegations in home-based court-martials, the ICC will not demand prosecution and trial under its own auspices.
It already looks clear that Obama will not use force against Iran nor give the nod to the Israelis. He has to find a way to make peace with Iran and hopefully he can now accept a compromise that keeps enrichment of uranium at or under the 20 per cent mark, which is far less than what is needed to make nuclear bombs. With such a compromise he will have the world on his side, including Russia, which has a great deal of influence in Iran.
The Israel-Palestinian dispute will be a continuous headache for Obama. It cannot be allowed to fester with continuous mini-wars like the present one. Obama is no longer beholden to the policies of ultra nationalist, pro-Israeli, congressmen. He can tell them they don’t by a long shot represent the majority opinion of American Jews. Without that hard line influence on US policy Israel will be more prepared to compromise.
One thing we can be fairly sure of in an Obama second term is that neither any wars nor any big time military interventions will be initiated, and that includes Syria.
Jonathan Power is a veteran foreign affairs commentator