Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Baby Obama's growing pains

The administration of the new President of the United States, Barack Obama, is poised to hit the two-month mark this week.

A new presidency is very much like a new baby: Everyone is waiting to see if it possesses all the right functioning parts and will tickle it to see how it reacts, trying to work out how clever it's going to be. And of course, early on, any hard-and-fast conclusions would probably be premature.

Still, Obama seems to be making the right moves. A big economic stimulus package has been pushed through and a diplomatic offensive has been launched, with many a hint that a more inclusive, flexible and multilateral approach will be undertaken. To stick with our infant analogy, Baby Obama has a good, clear voice, isn't shying away when made to take his medicine and isn't thrashing about kicking other folks too viciously.

Yet there will inevitably come a time (say, when a nasty stinging gnat flies too close) when the new baby will need to warn it off or, if need be, strike accurately and swiftly. At the moment, Obama's mouthpiece, Hillary Clinton, has issued the usual pro forma warnings for North Korea to desist from a suspected missile test. But suppose Iran refuses to play ball and is seen as coming closer to acquiring nuclear arms. Or the Russians try to assert themselves. We will then see how forcefully and how subtly the Americans will rally allies, marshal their forces and otherwise behave as the sole superpower must.

Then, of course, there's still Afghanistan and Pakistan. The situation, in some ways, is dire - yet heartening too. Some babies, they say, are born old (and if not wise, at least acute), and Obama seems to be approaching this festering problem with maturity and an understanding of its complexity. It is increasingly clear that battling the Taleban can best be understood as peeling off those forces that can be accommodated and isolating the fanatic elements that insist on exporting violence. Luckily, a leaf can be taken from the book of the previous inhabitant of the presidential crib: Baby Bush, who was forced to grow up pretty quick amidst the threat of terror. In Iraq, the once ideologically naive Bush ended up endorsing a strategy of accommodation with multiple armed factions, so that the hard core of the local al-Qaeda was exposed and then bloodied.

Something like that will now be pursued in Afghanistan, along with a surge of fresh troops. We'll have to see if the infusion of new vitamins will boost Baby Obama's defences, so that the rest of the world will be clapping along with his happy gurglings in a year or so.

Precocious little thing, though...