Hologram Presidency May Not End With Obama
05 June 2016
By Amir Taheri
As President Barack Obama draws closer to exit, speculation is rife about
likely changes in US foreign policy under his successor. Guesswork on that
score isn't easy.
One problem is that, because foreign policy has not featured much in the
current campaign, there are few indications of what the candidates might or
might not do.
Another problem is that this year's campaign is still open to surprises.
On the Democrat side Mrs. Hillary Clinton is often regarded as the
''inevitable'' nominee, at least in theory. But even then it is not at all
certain that she would secure enough support to ignore her party's more
radical wing led by Senator Bernie Sanders.
On the Republican side, though the term ''inevitable'' is seldom used for him,
Donald Trump appears to be best placed to clinch the nomination, especially
after a series of wins in Tuesday's primaries. But there, too, it is doubtful
that even if he is the nominee, Trump would be strong enough to impose his
vision, provided he has one.
Mrs. Clinton has enough experience in foreign affairs and national security to
at least know the main issues. Because he is a novice in national security and
foreign policy, Trump would be more dependent on his team, notably his
vice-president, to shape and implement a new strategy.
There is still a chance, though increasingly remote, that the ''stop-Trump''
campaign by Republican Party grandees might bring another rabbit out of the
hat. But even then, neither of the two likely rabbits, Senator Ted Cruz and
Governor John Kasich, knows enough about foreign policy and national security
to develop a new strategy on his own.
Based on the scant evidence produced during the campaign, as president,
Hillary Clinton would tend to redirect US foreign policy to its classical
channels. Clinton could be a cautious but determined player, though certainly
not an innovator. All indications are that ties with Europe and Japan will be
strengthened while the US would help the North Atlantic Treaty Organization
(NATO) repair some of the damage done to it under Obama.
As for Trump, the evidence available is even more scant. The real estate mogul
turned politician has been disparaging about both NATO, calling it ''pretty
useless'', and the European Union, claiming its members ride on America's
back, at different times. And, yet, he has given no hint that, as president,
he might want to clip the wings of either.
Both Clinton and Trump have hinted they would abandon the strategic retreat
that Obama initiated in the face of various challengers, among them Russia in
Europe, the Islamic Republic in Iran and the People's China in the Far East.
However, neither, has offered any hint as how they mean to do that.
One thing is certain: whoever is president by next January, US global policy
is unlikely to be put into a different gear immediately. The new president
would need a year to complete his or her administration and forge the
consensus required for major changes of policy.
The next step would be to seek or revive contacts across the globe in the hope
of reassuring old allies and finding new ones. Thanks to Obama's bizarre
manoeuvres, trust in the US is at its lowest for decades, especially in Europe
and the Middle East.
Two, perhaps more important, points need to be considered as well.
The first is that Obama has succeeded in subverting reality through
perception. His foreign policy could be compared to a hologram, a
three-dimensional picture that offers different images when seen from
different angles (for example it is an angel from one side and a devil from
Obama's ''historic'' move on Cuba is a hologram: from one side it appears as a
gesture helping Cubans choose a better direction for their unhappy land. From
another angle, it looks like a boost for the Castro clan's despotic rule.
The so-called nuclear deal with the mullahs of Tehran is another hologram.
Seen from one angle it is a detailed 179-page accord to put a stop to Tehran's
nuclear ambitions. But seen from another angle, it doesn't even exist let
alone block the Islamic Republic's path to a nuclear arsenal.
There are other examples of Obama's success in subverting reality with
perception. Obama claims that he has restrained Russia's expansionism after
Vladimir Putin annexed the Crimean Peninsula while establishing a toehold in
eastern Ukraine. On May 11 Putin will also annex South Ossetia before moving
to annex Abkhazia in October.
As for China, its strategy of building cat's paws in dozens of atolls in the
waters to its east and south continues unabated. However, Obama boasts that,
thanks to ''21st century diplomacy'', he has persuaded Beijing not to chew a
big morsel, so far.
Another hologram is the 6-Point ''strategic cooperation'' Obama concluded with
eight Arab states. Seen from one angle it looks like a dramatic new alliance.
Look at it from another angle and you see a fathomless vacuum. All the
promises are postponed until 2017, long after Obama has retired to write his
The so-called ''historic'' pact on the environment, negotiated with fanfare in
the ''Club 21'' in Paris, represents another hologram. From one angle you see
the oceans receding as Obama points his finger at them. From another angle, it
looks like a tedious bureaucratic concoction designed never to be taken
seriously even after the start of ''implementation'' when at least 54 nations
have legislated it into their national law.
Those who hope that the US may soon close Obama's chapter would have to
consider another disturbing possibility. What if Obama's strategy of dodging
issues and ducking leadership is actually popular with Americans? What if you
could fool enough of the people enough of the time to be able to kick the cans
down the road while everyone applauds?
These questions are not fanciful. Obama may have persuaded a majority of
Americans that the only choice they have is between full-scale invasion of
other countries, something they dread, and surrendering to the ''reality'' of
appeasement of all manner of bullies, which they might swallow with
sugar-coating of the President's eloquence.
The latest poll, dated 24 April by Gallup, gives Obama a 51 per cent approval
rating, an unprecedented figure for an incumbent US president at the end of
his term. In contrast, the approval ratings of French President Francois
Hollande who is also at the end of his term is only 15 per cent!
As Obama fades into the sunset, his legacy may linger awhile.
Thus, it would be prudent to hope for the best but to be prepared for the
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran,
London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran
(1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In
1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press
Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the
International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the
New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine
Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005,
he was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11
books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a
columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian
Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York.