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Roemer as US envoy to India: Mixed reactions

May 29, 2009 10:38 IST

US President Barack Obama's nomination of Timothy J Roemer, 52, an erstwhile Democratic Congressman from Indiana and a member of the 9/11 Commission to be the new US Ambassador to India has been received with mixture of elation, caution and disappointment.

Former US envoy to India Frank Wisner and industry sources expressed elation over Obama's choice of Roemer while the likes of South Asia expert Stephen P Cohen was cautious in his opinion. Some community activists were disappointed that the President had not made a high-profile nomination from the career diplomat cadres or the world of politics or business as he had for the ambassadorial posts in London and Beijing.

In an interview with rediff/India Abroad, Wisner -- now a top government relations consultant for the leading Washington lobbying firm of Patton Boggs, which represents India among several other international clients -- said, "I have gotten to know the ambassador-designate and I am enormously impressed. India is going to be delighted with him as ambassador to India."

Wisner said, "He is an extremely thoughtful and agreeable man. He is fascinated by the challenge that lies ahead of him, and he is really looking forward to making a difference on the India-US account."

"He is a man who listens, a man who knows how to accommodate other people's points of view, and he has a rich and interesting background and brings to the table a lot of relevant experience."

"But among other things," Wisner added, "he brings a very intimate and close relationship with the President."

Taking a hefty swipe at 'all the people who have been running around in Delhi in the past few weeks sort of nattering that Mr Obama likes India less than Mr Bush liked India or something like that', Wisner asserted, "They were wrong then and this nomination should make is palpably clear that the President wants the closest connectivity with the leadership now -- freshly elected in Delhi."

"The fact that he (Roemer) can pick up the phone and speak to the President," is an added plus, he said, and reiterated that fears in India that some of Obama's remarks recently, including comments that jobs should be retained in Buffalo (New York) and not outsourced to Bangalore, 'have been grossly exaggerated in the Indian media as if they were directed at India'.

Wisner said, "They were not directed at India. They were about American circumstances and the crisis that we are going through. They were not hostile remarks to India."

"The President attaches -- and I know this for sure -- a very considerable importance to the relationship with India."

"And, India and the United States can't get things done in the world without working with each other, and he really understands that -- Afghanistan, Pakistan, the regional insecurities, India's play for a global role, climate change, all of these issues, and trade is just one of the subjects."

Wisner also rubbished reports in the Indian press that Roemer would bring up the Kashmir issue and try to persuade Delhi to resolve this imbroglio with Islamabad so that Washington can advance its AfPak policy.

Several industry sources also echoed elation over Roemer's nomination, noting in particular his close proximity to the President, and one saying, "What pleases us is that he is a free trader."

"I mean, he's a guy who wants very much to make sure that this noxious issue of trade barriers gets beaten down," an industry source who is on the board of advisers of the USIBC said, adding, "after all the work that has been done, nobody wants to go into an endless series of trade disputes."

"Roemer, we know, gets it and understands it. We believe he is right on key -- what to say when he gets to India and how to remind Indians that this is the moment in the sun for both nations."

Another source argued, "They key with these ambassadors is that they be close to presidents and they can pick up the phone and speak to the president, and we believe Roemer has that access."

Cohen, arguably the doyen of American experts on South Asia, who will soon meet with Roemer to brief him on some of the key strategic issues vis-à-vis India and South Asia, told rediff/India Abroad that whether the US-India relationship will continue to sustain the kind of momentum it experienced during the tenure of President George W Bush, would "depend on how Roemer sees the job -- in terms of what his vision is for US-India relations."

"The real issue is whether the Obama Administration is going to have an India policy or a South Asia policy, instead of an AfPak policy," Cohen, who heads the South Asia Program at The Brookings Institution, said.

"And, it's going to be up to Roemer to ensure that India's views and India as a country is represented in American policy instead of it being submerged in AfPak policy. This is going to be a challenge for him."

The expert said that although Roemer may not be an experienced India or South Asia, or for that matter have any international experience, it was possible that he could make an impact as Robert Blackwill, who was also not a South Asia hand had had on Indo-US relations, being the catalyst in pushing for the strategic partnership between both the countries and taking strategic affairs expert on India and South Asia and also a specialist on India's nuclear program, Ashley Tellis along with him as counsel, advisor and confidante.

But if Wisner and the industry sources were elated and Cohen was cautious, some community activists who were in the forefront in lobbying for the consummation of the Indo-US deal, were disappointed with Roemer's nomination, saying he didn't have the high profile nor the gravitas and would be buried by the likes of the bulldozing Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke.

These activists, who preferred not to be identified also expressed concern that he was a fierce non-proliferation supporter and could presage difficulties between the US and India on the future course of the nuclear deal.

One community activist said, "I wonder why Obama chose him of all people to be our Ambassador to New Delhi, when he took special care to choose the right people for London and Beijing."

Another lamented, "Holbrooke is a huge presence and we don't want Kashmir to enter into any of the discussions along the way, and I don't know if Roemer has the strength to basically push back and make India feel secure that the likes of Holbrooke may try to pressure India into discussing Kashmir."

But Wisner -- who is a good friend of Holbrooke -- and the industry sources pooh-poohed these concerns.

Wisner asserted that Roemer not only had the gravitas, but argued that "he is a very serious man," and would not be eclipsed by Holbrooke. "Richard Holbrooke has the highest regard for Tim Roemer and they will be like hand-in-glove. I mean, this is a very effective relationship and why does one want to establish it is a competitive one?

"It is not competitive at all. Richard Holbrooke believes very deeply in having a strong relationship with India, more now than ever, given the difficulties and the circumstances in Afghanistan and Pakistan," he said.

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC