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The second coming of Barack Obama
By: T.P. Sreenivasan | JANUARY 19, 2017(Ref: thehindu.com)

He can play a crucial role during the Trump administration as unofficial leader of the opposition

President Barack Obama appears anxious to build on his legacy as his term comes to an end. From the ashes of the Democratic Party and his own establishment, which stands defeated, he is struggling to emerge, phoenix like, in a new avatar as humanist and statesman who has contributed to peace, racial harmony, reduction of tension and elimination of war.

His declaration that he could have won the election was a reflection of his assessment of his presidency. But the U.S. abstention on the resolution on Israeli settlements in the United Nations Security Council, which allowed the UN to castigate Israel, came too late and amounted to too little. The expulsion of Russian diplomats on hacking charges on the eve of a Putin-Trump partnership does not amount to much. The arrival of U.S. troops and equipment in Germany to support NATO can be easily reversed. His efforts to pre-empt changes at this stage may be in vain.

Carter as role model?
Mr. Obama should take it easy in the next few days and prepare to play a crucial role during the Trump administration as unofficial leader of the opposition. Jimmy Carter may well be a role model for Mr. Obama, though the latter’s presidency has not been as colourless as President Carter’s, and winning a Nobel Prize will not be an aspiration of his post-retirement efforts. In fact, instead of finding new causes to fight for, Mr. Obama can focus on the unfinished agenda of his presidency, having set in motion several initiatives, which could not be completed during his first or second term.

Barack Obama has the intelligence, imagination and energy to move these forward even without presidential powers. The Trump phenomenon may turn out to be a blessing in disguise for him. Mr. Obama may emerge as the conscience of the U.S. while President Trump is the man in authority.

The hostility of the American media towards Mr. Trump will be Mr. Obama’s greatest opportunity. They will hold up President Obama as a model, from which President Trump can move away only at his own peril. Mr. Trump will have to reckon with the formidable figure of Mr. Obama as a statesman with skill and experience, someone who is intelligent and balanced, a sympathetic figure for minorities and known to world leaders. Mr. Obama will be a constant reminder of the nostalgic past, as Mr. Trump drifts away from traditional policies. The complexities that will arise from dramatic changes in policy will definitely make the Obama days look better. Mr. Obama has to discreetly select an agenda that does not directly counter Trumpism and nativism, but promotes larger global interests.

The greatest opportunity will come for Mr. Obama when Mr. Trump tries to get close to Russia. If Mr. Obama takes a position of cautious engagement with Russia, working for arms reduction and moving towards nuclear disarmament, it will appeal to the global community. Mr. Trump’s announcement that the U.S. should enhance its nuclear capability does not appear to be in the scheme of things that led to his victory.

Global Zero, the objective that the global community set for itself to eliminate nuclear weapons, has a romantic appeal to peaceniks in the U.S. and abroad and Mr. Obama’s leadership will give the movement a momentum, though its fruition is only in the distant horizon. His Prague speech on nuclear disarmament is still relevant and may form the basis of an eventual agreement on elimination of nuclear weapons. He had warned that this would not happen in his first or second term or even in his lifetime. But he may well be a messiah of nuclear disarmament the anti-nuclear movement embraces.

The approach to the UN that Mr. Trump has outlined is another fertile field for Mr. Obama to be active. The traditional Republican line on the UN is that it is not of much help to the U.S.’s interests in the world and that the UN position on Israel is positively harmful. But Republican presidents have used the UN for their own purposes and the Trump theory that the UN is only a club for conversation and a good time may not be acceptable to the majority. Mr. Obama will be eminently qualified to campaign against neglect of the UN. At worst, Mr. Trump may engage in the old tactic of holding back contribution to the general budget and minimising the number of peacekeeping operations. A public campaign for support for the UN will resonate internationally, even among other permanent members.

Linked to the UN is the whole question of climate change and environmental protection, which appears to be anathema to Mr. Trump. Like a small minority of people, who still believe that the earth is flat, climate change sceptics believe that the whole theory of global warming is a hoax. This is contrary to internationally accepted studies of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has established that human activity is responsible for global warming.

Industrialised nations have wriggled out of the Rio commitment of 1992 to mandatory cuts and virtually buried the Kyoto Protocol. The Paris Agreement on Climate Change is a feather in Mr. Obama’s cap even though the action envisaged through voluntary efforts may not meet the requirement of containing the rise in global temperature below 2°C. Mr. Obama can legitimately campaign for the Paris Agreement and counter Mr. Trump’s total rejection of the phenomenon of climate change. The U.S. industry in general is not averse to the Paris Agreement.

Iran nuclear deal
The Iran nuclear deal is another cause for which Mr. Obama can campaign successfully. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has asserted in his exit memo to the President: “before the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) Iran was under 90 days away from having the material necessary to produce one nuclear weapon. Today, because of the JCPOA, they are at least a year away — and the unprecedented transparency measures allow us to know almost immediately if Iran fails to comply, giving us plenty of time to act. Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium has been reduced by 98 per cent — not anywhere close to what’s needed to make a single nuclear weapon.” These were tough negotiations spread over several years and the deal was the best possible alternative to war.

To the U.S., Germany and other permanent members, throwing the Iran deal out will be like throwing the baby with the bathwater. Mr. Obama has the credentials to defend the nuclear deal even with Mr. Trump as President. He could argue that the new power equations developing in West Asia will be beneficial to the U.S.

The success that Mr. Carter registered in several instances of conflict resolution after leaving office could be a role model for Mr. Obama. But Mr. Trump as President presents a special opportunity for Mr. Obama to be active. He may be able to play a role as a moral force against temperamental decisions of President Trump. Perhaps, Michelle Obama too has a chance to build a political future for herself in the years ahead. Her image will be an asset for Mr. Obama in his future endeavours.

Against the backdrop of the uncertainty created by the advent of Mr. Trump, Mr. Obama has a historic opportunity to play a role. Perhaps, he gave a hint of this in his farewell address: “That’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime... I won’t stop. In fact, I will be right here with you, as a citizen...” The second coming of Obama without any desire for office or financial benefit will be welcome.

T.P. Sreenivasan, a former Indian ambassador, heads the Kerala International Centre.

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