A weakened Obama visits India

Obama will take more than give


Brahma Chellaney

The Economic Times, November 4, 2010


U.S. President Barack Obama comes to India when his presidency has been considerably dented by the mid-term election drubbing, with the poll losses in key swing states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida likely to encumber his 2012 re-election bid. The president who harped on being transformational has been delivered a no-confidence in his own leadership by the voters.


It is remarkable that just a year ago, Obama was riding high, having unexpectedly won the Nobel prize for peace — a cause for which he has little to show up to now. A year, obviously, is a very long time in politics.


Obama’s Democratic Party lost the House of Representatives to the Republicans, while its razor-thin edge in the 100-seat Senate offers little consolation. It takes 60 votes to get anything done in the Senate. The Democrats’ continued control of the Senate thus is nominal. In effect, they stand kicked out of power.


Obama came to office with tremendous international goodwill. Yet, saddled with problems of historic proportion, he had little time to savour his epochal victory against rival John McCain. After all, he inherited national and global challenges more formidable than any faced by an American president at the beginning of the term. With the U.S. economic recession threatening to become a depression and two overseas wars raging, Obama had his work clearly cut out for him.


Now, midway through his term, these election losses ensure his hands will be full for the rest of his term. First, the high unemployment, growing U.S. debt and other economic problems that contributed to the poll reverses will preoccupy his presidency, especially if he hopes to be re-elected. That means he will shift to a more domestically focused agenda than before, with his international diplomacy geared towards trade deals to boost job and wealth creation at home. Second, he is likely to get tied down by the legislative actions and investigations of a Republican-influenced Congress, with a resurgent Tea party movement likely to target him increasingly.


That, plus an American public weary of the war, makes certain that Obama will start pulling U.S. forces out of Afghanistan before the job is done, leaving India on the front lines to face the brunt of greater terrorism from the Af-Pak belt. In fact, the recent unveiling of a new $2.3-billion U.S. aid package for the Pakistani military, along with the continued sale of offensive weapon systems, can only embolden an institution that is at the root of Pakistan’s problems and regional instability.


The good news on the U.S.-India front is that a weakened Obama presidency will do little to change the dynamics of a relationship whose direction is clearly set — towards closer engagement. The not-so-good news is that having given short shrift to some of India’s concerns in the first 22 months of his presidency on the pressing issues of counterterrorism and the scofflaw roles of the Pakistani army and ISI, Obama will have lesser leeway to accommodate India’s interests in his regional strategy, pivoted on extricating the U.S. from Afghanistan with the aid of the Pakistani military.


The president, pushed by the election setbacks, is likely to focus his India visit on promoting U.S. commercial interests, including job creation back home. That means he will crave for more contracts, especially high-visibility multibillion-dollar arms deals.


From Washington’s perspective, the billions of dollars worth of arms the Obama administration already has contracted to sell India since last year symbolize the new Indo-U.S. partnership. Closer military-to-military ties and defence transactions are part of the vaunted strategic partnership. Yet, India ought to be concerned about its growing reliance on the U.S. for weapons and their replacement parts, given that Washington is selling arms on both sides of the subcontinental divide.


During the second half of the Cold War, India relied on the Soviet Union for weapons. Now, New Delhi has begun to switch its dependency to the U.S., which has quietly emerged in recent years through government-to-government deals as the single largest seller of arms to India. Embarrassingly, India today stands out in the world as the only large nation dependent on imports to meet even basic defence needs.


Overall, the U.S. and India have never been closer than they are now, with their relationship set to deepen in spite of the policy differences on regional issues. Still, one should realistically expect more “take” than “give” from this presidential visit.


(c) The Economic Times.

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