Will Obama help renew America’s soft power?

Obama represents welcome change for India

Reuters November 14, 2008

Columnist Brahma Chellaney says in keeping with Obama’s personality, change under him will be cautious, calibrated and incremental, but packaged to convey a clean break from the Bush era.

(Brahma Chellaney is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own.)

By Brahma Chellaney

Saddled with problems of historic proportions, U.S. President-elect Barack Obama has little time to savour his epochal victory. He is inheriting national and global challenges more formidable than any an American president has faced at inauguration. The necessity to clean up the unprecedented mess that occurred on President George W. Bush’s watch crimps Obama’s ability to pursue major new initiatives.

For the next one year and more, Obama will be preoccupied with finding ways to extricate the U.S. from the economic recessionary trends at home and the military quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In addition, he has to devise more-workable American policies on Russia, Iran and North Korea, re-engage the U.S. in finding an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, and help nuclear-armed but quasi-failed Pakistan pull back from the brink of collapse.

The team Obama assembles will reveal the kind of leadership and change the world can expect. But it won’t be easy for him to live up to the high expectations that the world has of him.

For India, an America that returns to playing a mainstream international role and renews its ability to inspire and lead is better than the rogue superpower that the Bush presidency helped create.

The abdication of American values was symbolized by Bush’s establishment of the infamous prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the revealed network of illegal CIA detention camps elsewhere.

That helped undermine America’s real strength – its ability to inspire and lead. The U.S., after all, won the Cold War not by military means but by spreading the ideas of freedom, open markets and better life that helped drain the lifeblood from communism’s international appeal.

During the Bush presidency, India’s external security environment deteriorated. Thanks to the Bush Doctrine, an arc of contiguous volatility now lies to India’s west, stretching from Pakistan to Lebanon. The war on terror that Bush launched stands derailed, even as the level of trans-national terrorism emanating from the Pakistan-Afghanistan belt has escalated.

The core tenets of the Bush Doctrine were fourfold: the U.S. should pursue pre-emptive strikes where necessary; it should be willing to act unilaterally – alone or with a “coalition of the willing” – if it cannot win the United Nations’ sanction; the primary focus should be on politically transforming the Middle East; and Iraq ought to be the cornerstone in bringing about region-wide democratic change.

When Bush wasn’t chasing pre-emption, he was pushing sanctions. That too had an adverse effect on India’s regional interests. Take Burma and Iran.

In his nearly eight years in office, Bush has signed more punitive executive orders against Burma than against any other country. It is as if impoverished, inwardly focused Burma threatens regional or international security.

The blunt truth is that the Bush approach only helped strengthen the Burmese military junta despite popular discontent. In fact, to India’s detriment, it helped push Burma into China’s strategic lap.

India has also lost out to China in Burma on the energy front. After China torpedoed an early 2007 U.S.-led attempt to impose a Security Council diktat on Burma to improve its human-rights record, the junta thanked Beijing by first withdrawing the status of India’s GAIL company as the “preferential buyer” of gas from the offshore A-1 and A-3 fields and then signing a production-sharing contract with China’s CNPC.

For India, this was a discomforting diplomatic setback because the A-1 and A-3 blocks are partly owned by two Indian state-run companies.

Similarly, Bush’s sanctions approach against Iran has failed to either dislodge the clerical regime there or make Tehran fall in line on the nuclear front. But with the Bush administration ratcheting up tensions with Iran, the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project proposal has turned into a geopolitical nightmare for New Delhi, which has faced intense U.S. pressure to side with Washington’s international campaign against Tehran.

The net result has been that India’s relations with Iran have come under strain. Seeking to subtly punish India for its two votes against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board, Tehran has gone back on the terms of a deal to supply 5 million tonnes of liquefied national gas (LNG) annually to India for 25 years from 2009.

Even while waging war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush had wanted to militarily take on Iran – a confrontation that would have had a cascading effect on the Indian economy by disrupting oil imports.

Yet, underlining how power respects power, Bush mollycoddled the world’s longest-surviving autocracy in China, to the extent that he ignored the brutal suppression of the Tibetan uprising earlier in the year and showed up at the Beijing Olympics in August.

In place of the blustering and blundering Bush, Obama will be a welcome change for India. In keeping with his personality, change under Obama will be cautious, calibrated and incremental, but packaged to convey a clean break from the Bush era.

Yet, there is concern in some quarters in India that Obama may appoint a special envoy on Kashmir and mount non-proliferation pressures on New Delhi.

Such concern has been articulated in particular by Indian neoconservatives (“neocons”), who are feeling orphaned with the end of the Bush era and conjuring up visions of U.S. activism even before Obama has set up his foreign-policy team.

After the vaunted Indo-U.S. nuclear deal – which tethers India firmly to the U.S.-led international non-proliferation regime – 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 Bush, U.S. presidents have tried to pitchfork themselves as peacemakers between India and Pakistan to help advance American interests.

It was the Bush White House, for example, that helped set up the 2001 Agra summit meeting between then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistani ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf, revealing its dates before New Delhi and Islamabad had a chance to get their act together.

The question is: Why should India be defensive on Kashmir? Is it the terror-exporting 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 current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh – from making frontiers “meaningless and irrelevant” so as to create a “borderless” Kashmir, to the “sky is the limit” in negotiations?

Indian interests demand a new U.S. approach on subjects ranging from the challenges in India’s troubled neighbourhood to the global climate crisis. That is exactly what the political change in Washington promises.

(Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, is the author, most recently, of Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.)

© Thomson Reuters 2008. All rights reserved

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