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India-US: Hazardous days ahead

By T P Sreenivasan
May 28, 2009 15:13 IST
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A strange polarisation is taking place in India. Whenever President Obama says or does something prejudicial to India's interests, the anti-US lobby attacks the UPA government for misreading the Americans.

Instead of giving Prime Minister Manmohan Singh credit for gaining ground for India by skillful diplomacy during the Bush administration, they blame him for not anticipating the reversal of trends during the next presidency.

This happened when a State Department official restated the position that India should sign the NPT and when President Obama opposed outsourcing. Why did India reach agreements with the US when it was possible that a future government in the US would disown them?

If this is indeed the case, no agreements should be reached with any country. In the case of the US, the new administration is now constrained to work around the existing agreements even if it has to distance itself from the commitments made by President Bush.

The fact is that President Obama himself was taken by surprise by the kind of issues he faced in his first hundred days. 'Keep your hands washed; cover your mouth when you cough!' President Obama would never have thought that he would have to utter these words at his press conference to mark his first hundred days in office.

Nothing would surprise him any more as he has seen many issues he had not thought of coming to him all at once. He has also learnt not only that change in Washington comes slowly, but also that posturing is par for the course there. He has not taken long to know that the state is an ocean liner and not a speed boat and it cannot change course in a desperate hurry. His responses in this bewildering situation has to be necessarily tentative and subject to adjustments in the future.

The world misunderstood President Obama when he promised change. He has begun to say since his inauguration that many things that he wants to change cannot be done in a single term, a single presidency or in a single lifetime.

The time horizon he has in mind is much longer than the rest of the world had imagined. He can only start the journey and it may end only with a different president or a different generation. Continuity is part of the change.

The global economic crisis played a role in Obama's election, but he had not anticipated it when he initially offered his candidature. Iraq was the issue then and the economy had appeared robust. But he found that the economy was built on shifting sand. He lost no time in taking the bull by the horns, but the surprise was that he did not get bipartisan support, which was expected at a time of national and global crisis.

The world was aghast that business was as usual on the Hill when the stimulus package was being piloted there. President Obama is proud of his accomplishments in the economy, but not content.

In foreign policy, the shift from Iraq to Afghanistan and then to Pakistan was warranted by the threat from Taliban, which diminished even the importance of capturing Osama bin Laden. The war on terror returned to the theatre of terror, but a weakened and resource starved civilian government in Pakistan did not seem willing even to provide a front line for the war.

President Zardari had no qualms about signing an agreement with the Taliban to introduce Shariat law in Swat. Though the Taliban was nothing but a foreign force, the Pakistan army had to be forced into action by the United States. The very creation of an Afpak region for special attention and the designation of Richard Holbrooke as the special representative signaled the importance in US policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The likelihood of a takeover by the Taliban and fall of Pakistan nuclear weapons in the hands of the militants was used as a cover to enhance assistance to Pakistan.

President Obama has, at the same time, allayed fears about Pakistan's nuclear assets by saying that the military to military cooperation between the two countries will guarantee the protection of nuclear command and control mechanism. He has indirectly confirmed that the United States has a say in the management of Pakistan's nuclear weapons.

This was instituted when the A Q Khan scandal broke out and it came to be known that Khan had hurt non-proliferation more than Saddam Hussein had done. If A Q Khan and Pakistan had to be let off, they had to pay a price.

President Obama has not been very innovative in his Afpak policy. The three way summit in Washington was an instant success in the sense that Prime Minister Gilani declared an all out war on the Taliban even before the summit ended. President Zardari was handsomely rewarded with an aid package, which should convey a message that he still has the support of the Americans.

India was an unseen presence at the summit as Pakistan's world view could not be divorced from its paranoia with India.

Depending on Pakistani rulers and the army and pandering to their military and financial needs is an old American habit. If Pakistan has to fight the Taliban, it needs training in guerrilla warfare, not F-16s and warships. But the US Congress is again on the old track of handing over cash to Pakistan.

President Obama has thrown in an assertion that Pakistans obsession with India as the mortal threat to Pakistan is misguided. But there is no insistence that no assistance that could be used against India would be supplied to Pakistan.

Even excluding India from Holbrooke's mandate was only to accommodate Indian sensitivity. Holbrooke routinely halts in Delhi and gives gentle hints to India. India was conspicuously absent from Hillary Clinton's Asian itinerary. President Obama thinks that India can be satisfied by pious warm words about India and its prime minister.

The Prague speech outlined President Obama's new vision on nuclear disarmament, but there was hardly any change there. The commitment to move towards nuclear disarmament is nothing but a reaffirmation of the grand bargain in the NPT and the further steps he has suggested are old wine in new bottle.

He has no quarrel with the India-US nuclear deal, but he is in no mood to make it a part of the new dispensation. By treating the deal as a one time exception will not guarantee its faithful implementation. The appointment of the new czar of nonproliferation in the State Department does not augur well for the deal.

As far as India is concerned, the nuclear deal has already had its benefits in terms of the NSG exemption, leading to the agreements with France and Russia.

China, rather than India is President Obama's focus in Asia. The old Bush view of India as a balancing factor in Asia is a thing of the past. The talk of a G-2 to run the world is getting more frequent in the light of the economic crisis. This is a gigantic mistake the US is making.

The US and China cannot partition the world between themselves as the victors of the World War II did in 1945. President Obama appears oblivious of Chinese perfidy and ambition to dominate the world. Walking into a Chinese embrace will endanger the US itself in the long term.

Say no to Bangalore, yes to Buffalo is the new slogan President Obama has coined in the context of outsourcing. He must know that business will go wherever there is profit and there is little that the government can do except in terms of denying tax benefits.

The president has to create jobs in Buffalo, but to suggest that Bangalore is taboo is to hurt globalisation, which has brought immense benefits to the United States.

President Obama has reappointed veteran negotiator, George Mitchell, for the Middle East, but he is yet to make his agenda clear. If he allows domestic politics and Israeli influence determine his Middle East policy, justice will be denied to Palestine again.

Getting close to Turkey may be a great idea, but the key to winning the hearts of the Muslim world lies in establishing the Palestine state and insisting that Israel should abide by international law.

In the rest of his foreign policy postures and pronouncements, President Obama has demonstrated candour and vision. Gestures to Iran and Cuba, new signals to Russia and Europe and a smile and hand shake for Venezuelas Hugo Chavez mark a change in style, if not substance.

He has neither overreacted nor made concessions to DPRK's nuclear and missile antics. It may be true that he has not yet moved from campaign mode to governing mode, but the directions are clear and consistent with his promise of change.

India has much to be apprehensive about President Obama's Afpak policy, nuclear agenda and outsourcing. Part of the reason for this could be the feeling in the new Administration that India got away with too many diplomatic victories during the Bush era.

India's diplomatic efforts should be directed towards getting those victories consolidated in the days to come. We should build on our accomplishments rather than undermine the gains of the last five years. The hazards ahead are formidable, but not insurmountable.

Ambassador T P Sreenivasan served as deputy chief of mission at the Indian embassy in Washington, DC, during his distinguished career in the Indian Foreign Service.

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