Essential Reading for Obama

By Deepak Tripathi    

In the weeks until his inauguration on January 20, 2009, Barack Obama will be focusing on the most immediate tasks of assembling a new administration and familiarizing himself with the depth of domestic and foreign crises confronting the Unites States. Once in the White House, President Obama will have to grapple with the economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and their manifestations in the area of human rights and law. But the catalogue of failures of the outgoing administration of George W Bush is long. If President Obama is to succeed in delivering on the promises raised by his victory, he may find it useful to read some of the pages from the catalogue of failures of his predecessor. They shed light on the blunders that made America’s crises.  

Legacy of Iraq 

As President George W Bush entered his final year in office and the campaign to elect a successor gathered pace, the record of the Bush administration came under greater scrutiny in 2008. Violence declined somewhat in Iraq due to a combination of factors: America’s military surge, Awakening militiamen patrolling Sunni areas where they had fought the occupation forces alongside Al-Qaeda before, the cessation of hostilities by the militia close to the Shi’a nationalist cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, and the influence of Iran with which the Iraqi government had developed close ties.

The rise of the Sunni militia began to cause worry among Shi’a communities. Experts maintained that Iraq was still ‘the most dangerous country in the world’. Playing down killings, America and the Iraqi government had launched ‘a largely successful propaganda campaign to convince the world that things are better in Iraq and that life is returning to normal’.(1) However, there was no such doubt about Afghanistan and its neighbor, Pakistan, where the campaign of violence by the Taleban and Al-Qaeda had spread to every province and spilled over the border into India.

Economic collapse in America and the rest of the world was to follow in late 2008. It was to be the major cause of defeat of the Republican Party in the November election. But before that, crises in Pakistan, Georgia and elsewhere brought further pressure to bear on George W Bush, increasing the isolation of the outgoing president. His own party distanced itself from him. He did not attend the Republican convention that nominated Senator John McCain as the presidential candidate and Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska, as his vice-presidential running-mate. The Republican candidates often criticized the Bush administration during the campaign. He had the highest disapproval ratings for any US president and spent most of his time in the White House. This isolation made George W Bush a ‘lame duck’ president, but also gave him more freedom to pursue his foreign policy agenda away from the limelight of the election campaign.    


For more than six years after 9/11, President Bush had had a close alliance in his ‘war on terror’ with Pakistan’s military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf. When the tide of opposition to Musharraf became overwhelming, efforts began to find a way out of the growing crisis. Elections were held in Pakistan in February 2008, after the country’s most charismatic leader, Benazir Bhutto, had been assassinated by a suspected Taleban suicide bomber.  It was too late for General Musharraf. He would soon resign as president. Bhutto’s People’s Party, led by her widower, Asif Ali Zardari, and the Muslim League of former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, who had been exiled by the military regime to Saudi Arabia, were to emerge as key players. 

Showing little regard for the internal politics of Pakistan and the sensitivities of its people, the Bush administration’s preferred option was an alliance of the military and the People’s Party of the Bhutto-Zardari clan to rule Pakistan. There was an experiment in coalition government for a few months. It broke down and Nawaz Sharif pulled out his party from the coalition, leaving America’s preferred arrangement in power. Zardari and Sharif were old political enemies and odd bedfellows. Zardari knew he had America’s blessings. No sooner had Pervez Musharraf been forced out, the shaky alliance of the two most powerful civilian politicians fell apart. The purpose that brought Zardari and Sharif together in the first place – the removal of Musharraf – had been achieved. Old hostilities came to the fore again.

The sudden outbreak of hope after the victory of the democratic forces in February 2008 had not been seen for a long time in Pakistan. The election result had clear messages from the electorate to those traditionally in control of the country’s destiny. First, to the military, which had ruled Pakistan for more than half of the period since independence in 1947; and which, under General Musharraf, had subverted the judiciary above all. Second, to America, whose role in shaping Pakistan’s policies was seen by the electorate as unacceptable interference, exercised through the Bush administration’s proxy, Musharraf. The collapse of the governing coalition between Pakistan’s two major players at a time of crisis was a tragedy. After ruling the nation from the front for almost a decade, the military in Pakistan had had enough. It retreated into the background, but continued to be the real center of power behind a civilian façade.

Earlier, I referred to Zardari and Sharif as old adversaries. I should perhaps give a brief explanation of what has been at the root of their antagonism and distrust. They belong to very different political clans. Sharif was a protégé of the military dictator, General Zia-ul Haq, who ruled Pakistan for a decade until 1988. Under his martial law administration, the Sharif family enjoyed a dramatic rise in its business and political fortunes. Zardari belongs to the Bhutto clan by marriage to Benazir, who was assassinated in December 2007. Sharif is from Punjab, the most populous and wealthy province that dominates the military hierarchy; Zardari from Sindh, a province with about half the population of Punjab.

In the 1980s, Nawaz Sharif’s political fortunes rose dramatically, starting with his appointment as chief minister of Punjab, with the blessings of General Zia. Sharif’s rise continued after Zia’s death in a plane crash in 1988. Two years later, he rose to be the prime minister of Pakistan. Zia, during his military rule, deposed and then executed the head of the Bhutto clan, Zulfiqar Ali, the elected prime minister of the country. Before Sharif and General Musharraf fell out and Sharif’s government was deposed in a coup in 1999, it was Sharif who was close to the military establishment. The Bhutto clan was the outcast. Benazir and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, spent years in jail.

Memories of his overthrow and subsequent exile to Saudi Arabia by Musharraf made Nawaz Sharif distrustful of the army. Zardari, acknowledging the army’s paramount role in the politics of Pakistan, and encouraged by America, would like to work with both of them. In 2008, both Sharif and Zardari were far more mature and not as impetuous as they were in their youth. But that the political fortunes of one were made at the cost of the other remained a fact of history and difficult to forget.

Against that difficult-to-forget episode of history was the new reality of 2008. The People’s Party led by Zardari had emerged as the larger party in parliament, its character truly national. The main stronghold of the Muslim League faction of Nawaz Sharif was Punjab, the most important province, but not the whole country. It mattered at a time when rival forces were pulling the country apart, some representing Islamic fundamentalism, others secularism; some supporting a strong center, others demanding greater provincial autonomy. At the end of the Bush presidency, Pakistan was more volatile than at the time of its breakup in 1971, when East Pakistan seceded to become Bangladesh. But the Bush administration had its own agenda for Pakistan. 
Zardari and Sharif maneuvered to consolidate their positions after years in the wilderness. Pakistan struggled with the insurgency that grew and the economic crisis that worsened, raising new questions. As Zardari embarked on his quest to become the next president of Pakistan, would he turn the post into that of a constitutional figurehead? Or would he insist on keeping the powers to dismiss the government, dissolve the parliament and meddle with the judiciary?

Would the next president side with the all powerful military and cooperate with the United States in the ‘war on terror’ that caused the downfall of Musharraf? Or would he work to reduce the role of the army in the running of the country? Would the judges dismissed by Musharraf by illegal means be reinstated? Or the integrity of the judiciary was to remain compromised? Above all, would the hopes which the people of Pakistan had pinned on their elected politicians be realized? Or there would be disappointment once more.

In turn, Zardari won the presidency and the powers accumulated by the successive military rulers of the past remained with the president. Some of the sacked judges were reappointed, but not others known for their independence. Foreign aid and remittances from the Pakistani expatriates began to dry up as the worldwide economic crisis deepened. And American air raids on suspected Taleban and Al-Qaeda hideouts inside Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt, unknown in previous years, were launched with increasing frequency. Official protests against violations of Pakistan’ sovereignty became weaker. And the impression gathered that the government in Islamabad was helpless to deal effectively with challenges from insurgents and external powers alike. 

Pakistan, India and Bush Policy Turn

While the crisis in Afghanistan and Pakistan worsened, a gradual shift occurred in America’s policy in South Asia towards India. Washington came to the view that India, not Pakistan, was the main bulwark against militancy. After some years of deliberation between the Bush administration and India, the White House pushed for India to be given an unprecedented exemption, so it could join the ‘nuclear club’. India had not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and possessed nuclear weapons just as Israel did. After intense lobbying by the Bush administration, the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers’ Group in the end granted a ‘waiver’ to India. The decision cleared the way for India to buy nuclear components and fuel for use in its civilian power plants.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN watchdog, and suppliers agreed to do nuclear business with India. In doing so, the West accepted the reality of the country’s nuclear arsenal. The move was part of the same strategic environment in which the great powers, America and Russia, as well as the emerging countries and regional players such as China, India and Pakistan, have to live. They are rivals, as well as allies. The long-term goal of each is to outdo the others economically and militarily. But they must cooperate in the short run as they pursue their objective.

America’s new approach towards India, a secure democracy, marked the end of the traditional preference in Washington for Pakistan during the Cold War and again in the last seven years since 9/11. But the rules of the game with India had to be different. The country has a strong democratic system; it is too large and independent to be dictated to; and it has a strong, rapidly growing economy. With disenchantment with its old ally, Pakistan, setting in, America’s interests had shifted. India had a capacity to act as a democratic bulwark against terrorism. It provided opportunities for trade. And, in the long run, it would serve as a counter to the growing military and economic power of China.

Middle East

George W Bush paid his last visit as president to the Middle East in May 2008. It pleased some in Israel, but offended others, many among his Arab hosts in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The reverberations were felt throughout the region and beyond. Whether it was by calculation, or due to sheer incompetence, I do not know. It certainly was not proper conduct by a visiting head of state. Nor was it going to help fight the fires in the most politically sensitive region on the planet. His optimism that ‘a comprehensive peace settlement in the Middle East is possible’ before the end of 2008 was shared by no one. And as he ran out of time, he was also running out of friends. Arabs were furious and depressed at how he conducted himself.

When a head of state visits a region where enemies live side by side and the visiting dignitary plans to see them all, it is time to be careful. It is wise not to go over the top in praise of one side if the visiting leader wants to influence the other and play a role in efforts to settle the crisis. But the speech by George W Bush in the Israeli Parliament in Jerusalem was inflammatory. There was not a pretence of impartiality when Bush told the world that ‘America was Israel’s closest ally’ and Israel was ‘a homeland for the chosen people’, without acknowledging the plight of the Palestinians. Barely able to restrain himself, the Palestinian Authority President, Mahmood Abbas, reminded Bush that 1948, the year of the establishment of Israel, was also a year of ‘catastrophe’ for the Palestinian people. Usual Arab courtesy was difficult to maintain. Abbas confronted Bush directly when they met and told him that he, as the US President, had to show balance.

Palestinian newspapers were unanimous in their condemnation of George W Bush. In two of America’s closest allies in the Arab World, Egypt and Jordan, there was severe criticism of the US president. The Egyptian newspaper Al-Jumhuriyah accused him of twisting the facts. Al-Akhbar remarked that Bush had come to express his bias. This president did not think that his role as the leader of the most powerful country ‘demands neutrality, or at least objectivity’. (2)

Al-Ghad of Jordan expressed outrage in an editorial, saying that Bush had come not to repeat his promise of a Palestinian state, but to celebrate with his Zionist friends the anniversary of the state based on occupation and rape. Al Arab Al Yawm, another Jordanian publication, described Bush’s speech to the Israeli Parliament as full of bigotry. Interestingly, the Syrian publication, Tishrin, was measured in comparison. An editorial said that ‘Bush is backtracking on promises he made during the Annapolis conference on the declaration of a Palestinian state’ before the end of 2008.

Even Israeli newspapers were uncertain about how to take his explosive intervention. In the view of the Jerusalem Post, “Bush didn’t have to utter these thoughts. His career is over, he no longer needs Jewish vote.” And Ha’aretz warned the Israelis: “We should not allow this show of solidarity to go to our heads. Grave dangers lie ahead and no-one can do the job in our stead.”

The controversy over his Middle East trip did not end there. In Egypt, Bush lectured President Hosni Mubarak on democracy and civil liberties, as well as the need to isolate terrorism. He told the Muslim people in the Middle East to realize that Hezbollah, Hamas and Al-Qaeda had to be defeated. He warned that the ‘light of liberty’ was at risk from ‘spoilers such as the regimes in Iran and Syria’ and called on the region to reject their policies and prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. The meeting of the World Economic Forum at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh was the last straw for President Mubarak. Bush told his audience that politics in the Middle East ‘consisted of one leader in power and the opposition in jail’. Mubarak, who had been Egypt’s President for over 25 years, was not there to listen to him. And Bush was not there to listen to Mubarak when he spoke.

It was all very odd in the light of the Bush administration’s foreign policy, which used authoritarian regimes mercilessly. So what was behind his extraordinary behavior? It was possible that, deep down, George W Bush realized his own powerlessness to shape events and blamed everybody else for failures. Or he thought a Democratic victory likely in November 2008 and had no interest in making things easier for the next president of the United States.


The showdown in August 2008 between Russia and the pro-US government of the former Soviet republic of Georgia represented the most serious crisis between Washington and Moscow since the end of the Cold War two decades before. And it pushed the world to the brink of a new Cold War. The remote region of South Ossetia in the Caucasus had seceded from Georgia when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 and a low-level war of attrition had been going on there ever since. A majority of South Ossetian residents had been granted Russian citizenship and Moscow had considerable influence in its own backyard. The region is known for its vast energy reserves and America’s involvement in Georgia had been growing under the Bush administration. The Russian leadership saw President Mikheil Saakasvili of Georgia as America’s proxy in the region. Saakasvili had studied and worked in the United States in the 1990s.

Amid provocations by both sides across enemy lines, the Georgian military launched heavy  bombardment inside South Ossetia. The regional capital, Tskhinvali, was devastated. Thousands were killed, tens of thousands injured or became refugees. Russia retaliated by sending a large invasion force, which quickly occupied South Ossetia and parts of Georgia. The conflict caused a sharp deterioration in the American-Russian relationship. The resurgent Russia had put the trauma of the breakup of the Soviet state behind. There was a younger, more autocratic leadership in Moscow, confident due to its vast energy resources. And it had begun to display a new determination to confront what was seen in Moscow as the Western drive to encircle Russia by enlisting more and more former Soviet bloc countries into the Western military alliance, NATO.

Russia cannot be compared to the Soviet Union of the past. However, it remains a potent adversary of America in terms of its nuclear arsenal. In an era of American dominance in the oil-rich Gulf region, and NATO’s continued expansion from the Baltic states through Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic to attempts to enlist Georgia and Ukraine by the Bush administration triggered a response from Moscow reminiscent of the last phase of the Cold War. 

What happened in Georgia was a classic proxy war between Russia and America, which had become heavily involved in the republic since a popular revolt in late 2003 ousted Eduard Shevardnadze from power, with Western help. America provided weapons, training and intelligence to the Georgian armed forces. America’s involvement, beginning under the umbrella of the ‘war on terror’ after 9/11, had become much more. If President Bush had his way, Georgia would be granted membership of NATO as part of the alliance’s expansion around Russia. But France and Germany prevailed in their opposition. The question of Georgia’s membership was ‘postponed’. In Western Europe, Georgia was neither seen as a full democracy or a stable country – the most important criteria for NATO membership. And many had doubts about Saakasvili’s ability to take mature decisions.

In an era when America had assumed the right to launch pre-emptive strikes, it was difficult to see the Kremlin behaving any differently. The prospect of Georgia joining NATO, which might deploy nuclear weapons on Georgian territory, was simply not acceptable to Russia. At times like these, the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 is worth remembering. John F Kennedy was president when the deployment of Soviet nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba, just 90 miles from the coast of Florida, brought America and the Soviet Union close to a disastrous war. The Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, was forced to back down. In 2008, Russia was in the same position as America in 1962. But parallels with Cuba were lost on George W Bush.

Saakasvili’s decision to order the bombardment of the Russian-majority South Ossetia gave the Kremlin a convenient cover to invade Georgia, just as the Bush administration had found it expedient to invade Iraq in March 2003 based on claims that Baghdad had weapons of mass destruction, which were never found. Russia had begun to play for bigger stakes in 2008, just as America did in Iraq a few years before. At the height of the conflict, Russian forces occupied about one-fifth of Georgian territory. And Moscow was no longer willing to entertain the idea of Georgia’s territorial integrity in any negotiations sponsored by the West. 

The US-Russia proxy war in the Caucasus created a serious humanitarian crisis. The pro-Western leader of Georgia, was humiliated and its chances of joining NATO had suffered perhaps a fatal blow. The conflict laid bare the truth that the West could not intervene militarily to protect Georgia from the Russian threat. Article 5 of NATO says that an attack on one member-state will be regarded as an attack on the whole alliance, which will use all possible means to protect the member-state under threat. NATO’s inability to defend Georgia was a defeat for the West. 
The description by President Bush of the Russian action as ‘disproportionate and unacceptable’ was not credible in the context of America’s own behavior under his administration. Diplomacy was never a strong point of the Bush administration. And the strategic blunders in Washington and Tbilisi made the conduct of relations with Russia much more difficult. They created new problems for the next occupant of the White House, because they gave rise to the prospect that countries around the world might begin to look to Russia, ready to take on the West again.

A Broken West

For much of the first decade of the new century, the US economy had grown on the back of a housing bubble, just as growth in the 1990s was driven by a boom in the technology sector. The house prices rose by as much as 50 percent in ten years until 2007, after inflation.(3) It was a dangerous trend because of what was happening elsewhere in the American economy. There was no extraordinary growth in the US population or personal income. How can the housing bubble be explained? Two main factors were responsible: easy loans and cheap goods, manufactured in China and other low-wage economies, which gave Americans a false sense of wealth. As US consumers saw their house prices rise dramatically, they borrowed recklessly. Lending was equally reckless, causing the phenomenon of sub-prime mortgages. In September 2008, a collapse of the banking system was triggered and with it a deep economic crisis. America’s crisis quickly became a worldwide crisis and the stock markets crashed.

October 7 was a day of high drama and panic on both sides of the Atlantic. The New York Stock Exchange suffered further massive losses, despite a 700 billion dollar government rescue package. In London, shares in the banking sector collapsed, some falling by as much as 40 percent. The Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, issued a stark warning of an impending meltdown. And George W Bush, whose presidency looks destined for an ignominious end, pleaded for coordinated action by the leading industrialized countries. The International Monetary Fund estimated financial losses of around one-and-a-half trillion dollars. They could be higher.

Central banks of several major countries promptly announced cuts in their interest rates, after weeks of indecision when each country seemed to be engaged in domestic fire-fighting.  America’s rescue package was for its institutions, although, if successful, it would benefit others. October 8 was the day when the British government announced a bailout plan of its own. It would spend up to £50 billion in return for ‘preference shares’ in eight of the largest British banks and guarantee all personal loans. The measure gave the government some control over the banking system. There would also be restrictions on huge executive salaries and generous dividends to shareholders that had caused strong public resentment. 
In the immediate run, individual governments did what was best for their own economies rather than the global system. In Europe, the Irish Republic, Greece, Spain, Germany, and Britain, all took unilateral action. A proposal from the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, for a common European fund for economic bailout did not find support. It shattered what was left of the idea of unity in the European Union, especially among members of the euro currency zone. In the longer run, the era of lack of regulation of the kind seen in recent years seemed to be over, despite repeated insistence by the outgoing Bush administration to the contrary.
The unfolding crisis was the end result of a catastrophic loss of trust in the West that went beyond economics and finance. The sincerity of political leaders of the West that was at stake. If those in power in Washington, London and elsewhere could not be trusted on the critical matters of war and peace, law and justice and treatment of different sections of their own populations, their ability in other areas was bound to be questioned. The leaders of America and its allies had become consumed with a doctrine that leaves their economies at home, to be run by the large private institutions that they befriend, while they themselves go and fight wars abroad.

America financed its foreign wars by money borrowed from China and the oil-rich Gulf states, awash with petrodollars. The invasion of Iraq was launched on the false pretext of weapons of mass destruction. Later, a person of no less importance than the former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, said the war was all about oil. Instead of easy access to the oil-fields of the Gulf, what the US-led expedition achieved was turmoil in the region and beyond. The turmoil contributed to dramatic oil price rises that hit the world economy. And countries like China, Russia and Saudi Arabia, which had accumulated huge reserves of US dollars, did not trust the West. The resentment in the Arab World against the treatment of Muslims by the West was strong. And the government of Iceland bitterly criticized its ‘friends’ for not doing enough to help, after the collapse of the Icelandic financial system. Iceland began to look towards Russia. The West was broke – economically, politically, morally. 

-Deepak Tripathi, former BBC correspondent and editor, is a researcher and an author. His works can be found on He contributed this article to Contact him at:


(1) Patrick Cockburn, ‘Iraq: Violence is down – but not because of America’s surge’, Independent, September 14, 2008.
(2) For press reaction in the Arab World, see ‘Bush speech angers Arab press’, BBC Online News, available on
(3) Dean Baker, Recession Looms for the US Economy in 2007 (Washington: Center for Economic and Policy Research, November 2006)

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