Monday, 29 December 2008

Problems pile up for Obama

It is worth pointing out that Barack Obama won the presidential election by only 5%. As far as US elections are concerned, that is supposed to be a big margin, but lets bear in mind that despite the monumental failure of US foreign policy in the Middle East, and notably Iraq, the Republicans were actually inching ahead until the US economy took a sharp downturn. It is hard to imagine a more incompetent president than GW Bush, yet the Democrats won by just 5%.
In terms of the demographics it was women, and a late swing from Latinos that built up the Democrat vote. And best of all, it was young voters, indicating a shift similar to that which supported New Labour in 1997 and forced the Tories to painfully reinvent itself as a nice "liberal" party.
However there is not a harder time to imagine taking power than now. The economic problems have been long debated. Obama is less likely to be constrained by the free market dogma that got us into this mess. He may not pull it off in terms of resetting the economy - it may not be possible for one thing, but he is more likely to get it right.
Foreign policy is just as troublesome. His gung ho utterances on Pakistan and Palestine during the campaign did not read well, and continue not to do so.
The best we can hope is that that was just a ploy. Maybe the rhetoric in public is meant to impress the right people, but behind the scenes real progress is being made. I suspect this will be wishful thinking.
But why the rhetoric in the first place? Until recently we were living in a unipolar world, with the US far and away the most powerful nation on earth. And now? The case can still be made that this is the case. Militarily it is still the case, the US spends an extraordinary amount and no one can keep up with them. How was this possible? The narrative of the Republican party about the need for US power in the world, conflating the interests of the world with that of the US, and reinforced by the "Shock Jocks" radio talk show hosts who loved attacking "weak" liberals all contrived to win public support for this.
Failure in Iraq has presented the Democrats an opportunity to attack this illusion. Unfortunately many of them bought into this illusion in the first place and it does not look impressive to "flip-flop" in public. And it is not an easy shift to make. To admit that the US is a declining power is not a positive message, and does not fit in well with the need to be patriotic.
Yet it is clear now that it is not enough to be strong militarily and weak politically, which is what the US is now. It remains easier to pretend that the US can still throw its weight; by siding with Isreal whatever it does, by threatening Pakistan and by "surging" in Afghanistan. The problem Obama faces is that the US does not have the power by force to control these countries, and yet the need to find political solutions remains paramount.