With Iran and Cuba 'the Obama doctrine' takes hold – but how much difference will he really make?

Military disengagement and diplomatic engagement have been the hallmark of this presidency in foreign affairs

Peter Popham
Saturday 11 April 2015 10:15

The ending of the US trade blockade of Cuba, now in sight, may turn out to be a cultural disaster for the Cubans as American money and the Wal-Marts and McDonalds sweep in from the ocean.

But for the US itself, as President Barack Obama described it this week, it’s “no big deal”. Fifty years ago, during the Bay of Pigs crisis, Cuba was a potentially lethal outpost of the Soviet empire. Today, as Obama told Tom Friedman of The New York Times in an interview this week, Cuba is “a tiny little country. It’s not one that threatens our core security interests.”

Friedman suggested that the common elements in President Obama’s approach to Cuba and other formerly hostile countries amounted to “an Obama doctrine”: “Having taken care of all the strategic concerns… you believe that engagement is possible [and] can lead to different outcomes that are unpredictable in advance.” Obama did not demur.

Certainly, military disengagement and diplomatic engagement have been the hallmark of this presidency in foreign affairs. Imposing a date for withdrawal from Afghanistan, refusing to get involved in attacks on Libya and Syria, taking decisive steps to mend relations with Burma, Obama has distinguished himself sharply from his predecessor. And the doctrine, if we can call it that, is expected to climax this week in the first substantive talks between an American and a Cuban president in more than 50 years.

But to what extent do Obama’s policies bring about real change?

Each of these initiatives has been taken in the awareness that American military pre-eminence remains so colossal that what more cautious or conservative US politicians would define as risks are not really risky. Speaking of the pending deals with Cuba and Iran, the President said: “We are powerful enough to be able to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk. For us to test the possibility that engagement with Cuba could lead to a better outcome for the Cuban people – there aren’t that many risks for us. It’s a tiny little country. It’s not one that threatens our core security interests. If it turns out that it doesn’t lead to better outcomes, we can adjust our policy.”

These developments are welcome, so one is reluctant to rain on Obama’s parade. But there is a one-dimensionality to the doctrine which is a mirror image of the one-dimensionality of George W Bush.

In both cases, it’s all about us. All about America. Iraq was invaded because Saddam was a bad man, an ally who had turned his coat and become truculent and defiant, who was therefore a challenge, like the bad guy in a western. Iraq was invaded because Donald Rumsfeld persuaded Bush that it could be done on the cheap. Neither man seems to have given a thought to what would happen once the war was won, either inside Iraq or in terms of the regional balance of power. The nightmarish chaos of the present derives directly from the egomaniacal myopia of that world view.

The Iran deal may turn out well. I certainly hope so. But again, it’s all about America. Iran’s military budget, Obama told Friedman, is $30bn; that of the US, nearing $600bn. Ergo, Iran won’t attack the US. And it won’t attack Israel because “we have [Israel’s] back.” Meanwhile a nuclear deal will encourage “those forces in Iran that say we don’t have to view ourselves entirely through the lens of our war machine – let’s excel in science and technology…”

You’ve got America the Benign, renouncing its bad old ways. And you’ve got the people of goodwill in these countries who will pick up their cue – “These folks,” Obama says, “get stronger.”

Certainly they will get happier, at least for a while. But it’s all about big results, big headlines; all about Us and our achievements. It is a Brobdingnagian vision, unable to take the compulsions and preoccupations of the “little tiny” folk at face value. Yet power remains where it was. And as in the time of Bush, American strategic decisions are taken in a vacuum of concern for the power balance either within the country itself or in its wider region.

So while the President is smug about America’s ability to tower over Iran's militarily, the shift in the regional power balance caused by the hoped-for diplomatic re-engagement helps explain why Iran and Saudi Arabia – to the US’s perplexity – are now locked in another proxy war, this time in Yemen, on the Saudis’ doorstep

Back in the mists of his first term, Burma – “the first wall you knocked down,” as Friedman put it – was the same. A shrewd and ambitious general forced an authoritarian constitution on the country, freed Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, became president after a fraudulent general election then pushed through a raft of long-needed reforms – freeing political prisoners, legalising trade unions, relaxing press censorship. It was enough to persuade the US and its allies to re-engage dramatically with a country on which sanctions had been clamped more than 20 years before, after the 1988 massacre of demonstrators.

But as today with Cuba and Iran, it was all too easy, too flip. Three years on, the reform process has stalled because America no longer has any way of exerting pressure. Suu Kyi, brought onto the political stage as a pawn in this game, is increasingly disillusioned as new elections approach. The regime consists of “hardliners” who “are not interested in negotiations or amending the constitution or taking seriously the will of the people,” she says now. “The United States and the West in general are too optimistic.”

Power remains exactly where it was before engagement started. Business is booming. But the people remain powerless.

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