The election last week of Barack Obama as President of the United States has invigorated international politics at a time when the world is reeling from environmental, financial and political crises. In his victory speech last Wednesday, President-elect Obama announced that his term would represent "a new dawn of American leadership".
The nation’s first African-American Head of State will have to wait three more months to deliver on that promise, a point Obama was quick to raise at his first press conference at the weekend.
President Bush does not hand over the reins until 20 January next year. The appointment of a staunch Zionist, Rahm Israel Emanuel, as Obama’s Chief of Staff suggests a continuation of the US-Israel special relationship. But in other respects there are signs that an Obama presidency will be characterised by a more open, less aggressive foreign policy.
For one, Obama has shown a willingness to speak to countries considered pariah states. Such have been the unilateral excesses of the past eight years that the mere suggestion of conventional diplomacy is now considered radical in Washington. Obama aides have spoken of the possibility of conducting "direct diplomacy" with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and softening sanctions against Cuba.
Last month former Obama campaign foreign policy adviser Robert Malley — who was forced to resign earlier this year for meeting members of the Palestinian Hamas movement — met Syria’s President Bashar al Assad in Damascus. The Obama camp denied any involvement in the initiative, although there are murmers that the President-elect may have privately endorsed the visit.
Obama also ran into early trouble during his presidential campaign when he advocated dialogue with Iran.
Of course, only time will tell if an Obama Administration will result in radical departures from US foreign policy under President Bush. For his part, Bush has said that his administration will facilitate a "seamless transfer of authority".
But there are signs that, in its last days in office, the Bush Administration is hurriedly escalating the so-called war on terrorism.
There have been at least 18 missile strikes and three attempted ground assaults within Pakistan since September. The latest, yet another on a suspected hideout in North Waziristan last Friday, killed nine people.
Another series of strikes on 31 October, a mere day after Pakistani officials demanded that the US halt unilateral strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas, claimed 27 lives, including, the US alleges, fighters allied to South Waziristan Taliban commander Maulvi Nazir, Al Qaeda and other foreign militants. Civilian are likely to have been killed as well although exact figures have proved difficult to verify.
The unilateral strikes come at a time when Pakistani forces are completing a devastating campaign against Taliban militants in the north-western tribal region of Bajaur. The Pakistan Army has compelled tribal leaders to disavow their support for the Taliban with a series of military operations which, the Army claims, have killed over 1000 militants. The Pakistan Army may have lost as many soldiers itself but it remains tight-lipped about exact figures. International humanitarian agencies estimate anywhere between 200,000 and 310,000 civilians have been displaced by the Bajaur conflict alone.
There is an increasing sense within the Pakistan establishment that the US does not appreciate the sacrifices the country is making to defeat the Taliban in terms of men and resources.
"The people of Pakistan are being killed both by the radical militants [and]the unmanned drones," said one Pakistani analyst in the local press.
In the past seven days alone, four suicide attacks have targeted Pakistan’s police and army, including one on a police station that killed nine and injured dozens more in the city of Mardan, north east of Peshawar. In Bajaur last Friday, 23 people were killed and another 45 injured when a suicide bomber attacked a meeting of tribal elders convened to devise strategies for removing the Taliban from the area.
This week newly appointed CENTCOM commander General David Petraeus visited Pakistan along with Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Richard Boucher. Pakistan’s Defence Minister warned them that such attacks are a consequence of US strikes like that which occurred on 31 October.
And yet, the strikes — like US military operations generally — show no sign of abating.
Until recently, Pakistan was the only target of US unilateral strikes, so called because they are undertaken without the permission of the country in whose territory they occur. However, on 26 October, the attacks moved to Syria, with helicopter-borne US troops entering the village of Sukkariyeh near the Iraq border. According to the Syrian Government, eight civilians were killed in the attack. The US claims it was targeting Al Qaeda operatives — one of its officials anonymously told Associated Press that the US was "taking matters into our own hands".
An exasperated Syrian Government reacted by threatening to end cooperation with the US over cross-border security, a feeble protest that demonstrates the unequal power dynamic between the small Middle Eastern nation and the world’s only superpower.
In stark contrast, General Petraeus is known to openly advocate dialogue with Syria. But his offer to meet the Syrian President several days before the attack was flatly rejected by the Bush White House.
While Republican Presidential nominee John McCain praised the strike on Syria, Obama refused to endorse it.
In July President Bush authorised unilateral strikes on suspected militant targets outside Afghanistan and Iraq. The move means that individual strikes no longer need the President’s express consent. According to an excellent piece in The New Republic this authorisation applies to the entire world — including Iran. It remains to be seen if the next administration will maintain the policy.
Obama has given conflicting signals on his approach to the issue. He may have very publicly expressed his support for "going in" to Pakistan if it "proves unwilling or unable" to hunt down Al Qaeda or other militants wanted by the US. But Obama advisers have quietly told reporters and analysts that he would consider negotiating peace agreements with more moderate elements of the Taliban and, as mentioned earlier, seek dialogue with countries like Syria, Venezuela and Iran.
The world undoubtedly hopes the latter will be the case. "We are convinced that the time has come to forge new ties … mainly based on the principles of respect and sovereignty, equality and truthful cooperation," is how President Chavez characterised these hopes.
But, in its death throes, the Bush Administration is more than capable of throwing a spanner in the works.
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