Obama’s epochal win and a defensive India
Covert magazine, November 16-30, 2008
Barack Obama’s landslide victory in the presidential election symbolizes a non-violent revolution in U.S. politics. Despite the idle speculation in India that the president-elect may appoint ex-President Bill Clinton as his special envoy on Kashmir and step up non-proliferation pressures on New Delhi, the blunt fact is that India does not figure in his leading priorities.
For the next one year and more, Obama will be preoccupied with finding ways to extricate the U.S. from the economic recession at home and the military quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, devising more-workable American policies on Russia, Iran and North Korea, promoting an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, and helping nuclear-armed but quasi-failed Pakistan pull back from the brink of collapse. Notwithstanding an inflated sense in India of the country’s importance to U.S foreign policy, there was not even a passing reference to India in the foreign policy-centred first debate between Obama and his Republican opponent, John McCain.
In any case, the foreign-policy agenda, especially the skewed emphasis on some issues, including the pursuit of an idée fixe, is shaped by the personalities that form a U.S. presidential team. The Clinton administration’s obsession with Kashmir, for example, owed a lot to Robin L. Raphel (who helped engineer the formation of the Hurriyat) and Madeline Albright (who had been swayed by her father’s UN stint there). Obama has yet to assemble his foreign-policy team. It is thus too early to say that he will seek to play an interventionist role on Kashmir or mount greater non-proliferation pressure.
After the vaunted Indo-U.S. nuclear deal — which tethers India firmly to the U.S.-led non-proliferation regime and crimps the long-term credibility of the nascent Indian nuclear deterrent through eclectic fetters — there isn’t much non-proliferation room to keep badgering New Delhi. The deal was a bipartisan U.S. product, with Obama himself contributing to tightening its terms by successfully inserting two legislative amendments — one of which restricts India’s uranium imports to “reasonable reactor operating requirements”, while the other seeks to deter Indian testing by threatening a U.S.-led international nuclear-trade embargo.
As for Kashmir, the truth is that, from Harry Truman to George W. Bush, U.S. presidents have tried to pitchfork themselves as peacemakers between India and Pakistan to help advance American interests. Truman’s suggestions on Kashmir, for example, prompted then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to complain that he was “tired of receiving moral advice from the U.S.”
Take another president, John F. Kennedy, perhaps the most India-friendly U.S. leader thus far. After China launched a surprise invasion in 1962, Nehru sent two frantic letters to Kennedy for help. But the U.S. began shipping arms only after the Chinese aggression had ceased and a weakened India had been made to agree to open Kashmir talks with Pakistan. In fact, when the People’s Liberation Army launched a second, more-vicious round of attacks after a gap of three weeks during that 32-day war, the U.S. carrier force, USS Enterprise, steamed not towards the East or South China Sea but toward the Bay of Bengal to serve as a mere psychological prop to besieged India.
The outgoing incumbent, with his strong interventionist impulse, may have attempted to play a more-activist role on Kashmir had the U.S. military not got bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and had his pet dictator not come under siege at home and been eventually driven out of office by the Pakistani people. After all, repeated American attempts at Kashmir mediation or facilitation over the decades have helped the U.S. to leverage its Pakistan ties with India.
Let’s not forget it was the Bush White House that helped set up the 2001 Agra summit meeting between Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistani ruler General Pervez Musharraf. In fact, the U.S. let the cat out of the bag by revealing the summit dates before New Delhi and Islamabad had a chance to get their act together. On the fifth anniversary of 9/11, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sprung a nasty surprise on the nation by embracing Pakistan as a fellow victim of and joint partner against terror, he put forward a U.S.-designed proposal — joint anti-terror mechanism. That move helped embolden the Pakistani intelligence to step up attacks on Indian targets — from the Embassy in Kabul to public places in India’s northeast.
Singh made public his penchant for gabble when he waxed lyrical in January 2007: “I dream of a day when one can have breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul”. But how fundamentally Singh had changed Indian policy under U.S. persuasion became known earlier when, returning from Havana, he declared: “The Indian stand was that the borders could not be redrawn, while Pakistan was not prepared to accept the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir as the permanent solution. The two agreed to find a via media to reconcile the two positions”. By peddling a LoC-plus compromise, he opened the path to inevitable concessions to Pakistan.
In fact, the Bush administration’s trumpeted “de-hyphenation” of India and Pakistan in U.S. policy was not a calculated shift but the product of Pakistan’s descent into shambles and India’s political and economic rise after 1998. But U.S. policymakers, making a virtue out of necessity, sought to take credit for the de-hyphenation. Hyphenating India with a country a fifth of its size in terms of territory and a seventh of its size in terms of population was an abnormality that had been perpetuated partly with the aid of India’s own irrational fixation on Pakistan.
Old policy habits, however, die hard. Under Bush, U.S. policy simply went from hyphenation to parallelism. That approach has involved following separate parallel tracks with India and Pakistan, thereby permitting America to advance its interests better. When Bush visited India and Pakistan in 2006, he touted the tour as aimed at building strategic partnerships with both countries for — believe it or not — “fighting terrorism” and “advancing democracy”. With a beaming Singh by his side in New Delhi, he publicly sought Indo-Pakistan “progress on all issues, including Kashmir”. Such is Bush’s legacy that the U.S. is now building parallel intelligence-sharing and defence-cooperation arrangements with India and Pakistan.
No sooner had Bush initiated the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) with India than he designated Pakistan as a Major Non-Nato Ally (MNNA) under the 1961 U.S. Foreign Assistance Act. Bush’s rearming of Pakistan coincided with his push to sell weapons to India, thus allowing the U.S. to reap profits and gain leverage on both sides of the subcontinental divide. Indeed, the very day Bush announced his decision to sell F-16 fighter-jets to Pakistan, Washington patronizingly offered to “help India become a major world power in the 21st century”. Today, even as he readies to relinquish office, Bush has pushed for an $891-million upgrade of Pakistan’s India-directed F-16s at a time when Islamabad is struggling to avert an international-debt default.
Against this background, it is fair to ask: Why does India remain so defensive on Kashmir? Is it the aggressor state that now exports terror? Is it the irredentist party seeking to redraw frontiers in blood? Even if a special U.S. envoy is appointed, what can he seek that India has not already offered under the weak-kneed Singh — from “soft borders” and a “borderless” Kashmir, to the “sky is the limit” in negotiations and a LoC-plus compromise? It is the search for a solution to an intricate, irresolvable issue, including by some Indians, which has kept alive the problem and engendered more bloodshed.
Unlike the meandering nature of the Indian state, U.S. policy pursues its long-term goals with unflinching resolve, and a change of administration may change nuance but not intent. Continuity in objectives is ensured through a robust structure of institutionalized policymaking, a 77-day transition period before the president-elect is sworn in, and intelligence instruments like the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) that Obama started receiving no sooner than he had been elected. Any U.S. initiative, even with an altruistic core, is required to serve America’s national interest first and foremost.
Whatever may be the shape of Obama’s foreign policy, he has already acknowledged that Kashmir represents “a potential tar pit for American diplomacy”. In any event, Washington’s ability to intervene in Kashmir is tied to Indian acquiescence, however half-hearted or forced. Expressions of concern in India over the Obama administration playing an activist role on Kashmir thus reflect a lack of confidence in New Delhi not ceding space to U.S. diplomacy — a diffidence borne from the historical record.
Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.