A gesture of good faith towards Tehran’s re-engagement with the West might have been for Mr. Obama to ease up on the oil sanctions, perhaps permit friends of Iran such as India, who depended significantly on crude imports, to resume limited trading

The U.S. President is whipping up the holiday sentiment with some beltway bonhomie, pardoning Popcorn the national Thanksgiving turkey, then joining his fellow Americans in some patriotic discount-shopping during the Christmas and New Year festivities.

Yet, Barack Obama must have no doubt that recent weeks have left his administration with little cheer on one of Washington’s top foreign policy priorities — the “Asia Rebalance.”

November turned out to be more punishing than thanks-worthy in this regard, with a bitter blend of cynicism and uncertainty tainting the vector of surprise developments in the Asia region, including the nuclear deal with Iran, the security agreement endorsed in Afghanistan and the precipitous game of “chicken” in the East China Sea.

The momentous news of the P5+1 group of nations reaching an agreement with Tehran on limiting its uranium enrichment and permitting site inspections at nuclear facilities should have come as no surprise after the election of the moderate Hassan Rouhani to the presidential seat in June this year.

It was concomitantly revealed that U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns held secret talks with his Iranian interlocutors throughout the détente period.

Triumphalism over good faith

Yet, the western allies appeared to revert to a triumphalist rhetoric that suggested that the crippling sanctions that they imposed were solely responsible for the turnaround, no thanks at all to Tehran’s new regime for taking a courageous step towards the negotiating table.

A gesture of good faith towards Tehran’s forward-looking re-engagement with the West on the nuclear crisis, despite Israel’s sustained, warmongering bluster, might have been for Mr. Obama to ease up on the oil sanctions, perhaps permit friends of Iran such as India, who depended significantly on crude imports, to resume limited trading.

Contrarily, days after the resumption of talks with Mr. Rouhani’s administration was announced, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry cautioned that the Joint Action Plan agreed upon by the P5+1 nations and Iran did not offer relief from sanctions with respect to most purchases of Iranian crude by existing or new customers, and “we will continue to aggressively enforce our sanctions over the next six months.”

Similarly, Mr. Obama reaffirmed that under the U.S. National Defence Authorisation Act of 2012 the White House had determined that “there is a sufficient supply of petroleum… from countries other than Iran to permit a significant reduction in the volume… purchased from Iran by or through foreign financial institutions.”

What signal does this send to nations such as North Korea, whose resolve the U.S. and its friends are similarly seeking to neutralise?

Rushed withdrawal?

If the skewed dynamics of diplomacy have been exposed in its dealings with Iran, Washington will be hard-pressed to avoid the charge that it is rushing for the exit in Afghanistan at a time when the country’s security forces need support and there is a lack of clarity surrounding Kabul’s ability and willingness to fend off hostile forces in a dangerous neighbourhood.

After the Loya Jirga ratified the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) last month, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, known for his penchant for political brinkmanship, refused to sign the deal, sending waves of panic through the Obama administration that is now unable to take the “zero option” for U.S. troops off the table.

Yet, consider the view from Mr. Karzai’s perspective. Leaving aside all the ‘unknowns’ that may be influencing his decision to prevaricate on the BSA, including Taliban opposition to the deal and murky pressures from eastern neighbours, the U.S. presence in Afghanistan has been coterminous with some of the most egregious wrongs of our times.

U.S. Marines were filmed urinating on the bodies of dead Afghan fighters in January 2012 and a month later troops at Bagram air base burnt copies of the Koran, leading to national outrage and protests, including violence that resulted in the deaths of 30 people and injuries to over 200.

In March 2012, 16 innocent Afghans, women and children included, were slaughtered in the bloodthirsty rampage of a U.S. Staff Sergeant in Kandahar.

The scourge night raids continued for most of the time that Western troops were present in the country, although most recently after months of protest from Mr. Karzai, Mr. Kerry promised that U.S. forces would conduct raids only in “exceptional circumstances.”

Larger fumbles

These tactical bungles have been exacerbated by larger strategic fumbles, including Mr. Obama’s early announcement of a troop withdrawal timeline, back in June 2011, which might have given pause to militant outfits happy to bide their time and see off the U.S.

Regional powers such as India, who are discomfited by the emerging power vacuum in Kabul and fear that it may again become a breeding ground for extremism, are resigned to the reality that America has prioritised rolling back its wars and reviving its economy.

Troubling though the conundrums of Afghanistan and Iran may be, it is the failure of the Asia Rebalance to prevent the U.S.’ second-largest trading partner from embarking on campaigns of expansionist adventurism that truly casts doubt upon the strategy.

Beijing’s unilateral declaration of the new Air Defence Identification Zone, which encompasses the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands over which China and Japan dispute sovereignty, is tantamount to blowing a raspberry to Washington and Tokyo and double-daring them to respond.

And respond is what Mr. Obama did, by sending two B-52 bombers into the ADIZ without the prerequisite notifications — but to what avail? Beijing did not stand down and the State Department made clear the next day that commercial aircraft would be well advised to comply with the identification rules.

Regional engagement

More disconcerting is the possibility that the ADIZ may in fact only be ADIZ-I, one salvo in a calibrated strategy of disruptive territorial expansion that President Xi Jinping may be supervising, even as he holds to an even keel on the bilateral economic front with his “old friend,” U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. If that is the case then the ultimate deficit in the Asia Rebalance — the inability of Washington to decisively marshal like-minded regional powers into a string of partners, if not pearls — has already conceded victory in this early round to Asia’s hegemon.

In his second term Mr. Obama has a legitimate intention to build up a discernible domestic policy legacy, with a focus on achieving critical concessions from Congress on immigration reform and economic stimulus measures.

If this is true then it may be politically more expedient and practically less confusing to everyone if the White House eschewed grand overarching foreign policy paradigms such as the Asia Rebalance and instead framed each bilateral or regional engagement in a narrower idiom.

(Email: narayan@thehindu.co.in)

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