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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 49

Coming to Terms with Barack Obama

Tuesday 25 November 2008, by M K Bhadrakumar

A dichotomy is visible in the Indian reaction to the stunning victory of Barack Obama in the United States presidential election. The public opinion ranges from intense curiosity to a sense of participation. Obama’s historic pole-vault over the great American racial divide caught public imagination. The government also did the right thing, promptly congratulating the President-elect.

But the death of US neo-conservatism has plunged our strategic community into confusion. Some fear that the Obama presidency may adopt an “intrusive” policy toward India. Others mumble that India can learn to live with Obama, who would ultimately have to settle for “continuity and change”—Indian style. Almost our entire strategic community mourns that the halcyon days of the George W. Bush era are over.

Which is a startling revelation insofar as our strategic community is at odds with the overwhelming opinion worldwide. The world community feels relieved that the US neo-conservative dogma that characterised the Bush Administration’s foreign policy is becoming a relic. Why are Indian thinkers sulking and panicking?

Fair Amount of Clarity

IT all seems completely unnecessary. There is a fair amount of clarity on where Obama stands on the range of foreign policy issues. First, Obama has promised as a priority that by the end of his first term, he will show progress in meeting the UN Millennium Development Goals, including reducing by half the number of people living on less than a dollar a day and suffering from hunger. He thinks the US can make a huge dent in world poverty. India cannot but have a sense of solidarity with the 1.4 billion people who live on roughly a dollar a day. India should welcome the fact that Obama has promised to help the world’s poor as part of American policy. Our leadership would do well to emulate him and review the creeping “millitarisation” of India’s own foreign policy.

Second, due to force of circumstances—financial meltdown—and as a matter of conviction, the possibility of Obama unleashing yet another American war can be ruled out. Again, he will bury the Bush doctrine of unilateralism and “shock and awe”. That forthwith removes a significant source of tension in contemporary world politics. A degree of predictability ensues and it will suit India, given its huge stakes in the stability of West Asia.

Obama can also be expected to make the US abide by international law and place emphasis on the use of diplomacy for advancing American interests abroad. He sees the US as a team player, which relies on international institutions and multilateral negotiations. Certainly India, which External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee recently described as “instinctively multilateral”, cannot complain.

Then, there are the various relationships that the US needs to manage with other big powers. Obama will seek to work closely with the European allies. But Euro-Atlanticism does not affect India’s interests. Nor would it hurt Indian interests if Obama chooses to reassure Russia that the US does not threaten it. Obama has not spoken much about Russia, though. Both on the African and Latin American continents, there are high expectations that an unprecedented era of positive engagement with the US is about to begin. The normalisation of US-Cuba relations is a certainty. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez hailed Obama.

China falls in a distinct category. Obama attaches great importance to Washington’s partnership with Beijing. Indeed, there is an imperative need for the US foreign policy to work closely with China, which has a key role to play in the US economic recovery. From all indications, China is not inclined to take advantage of the US’ difficulties and, instead, will adopt an attitude of a “stakeholder”.

Unsurprisingly, a “containment strategy” towards China will be far from Obama’s mind. Our thinkers should revisit the entire hare-brained idea that India is well placed to extract advantages out of the US’ China policy. The thesis that India is a “balancer” in the international system appears farcical. That is one part. Secondly, India needs to come up with its own strategy towards China in the emerging scenario in which both Russia and the US are keenly seeking partnership with China. It is not sufficient for the government to say China’s rise poses a strategic threat to India, as Mukherjee recently put it. Evidently, there is no “race” possible between China and India. If ever there was one, it is over. The world, especially the Asian region, grasps this and we too need to.

Engaging Iran

IT is with regard to the winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that the Obama Adminis-tration’s policy will hold deep significance for India. Obama put a timeline of 16 months for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. Added to this is the growing Iraqi assertiveness, as is evident from the US-Iraqi negotiations on the status of American troops.

What lies ahead? Much depends on the US move to engage Iran, which is the core issue in the US’ exit strategy. Back-channel contacts are on between the US and Iran. Iranian statements carefully sidestepped Obama while rhetoric against the US policies continued. Conceivably, Iran will settle, provided Obama agrees on all-round US-Iran engagement and Washington concedes Tehran’s regional influence. The odds are in favour of a settlement following the Iranian presidential election in June, while a US Interests Section in Tehran is likely to be opened in the coming days or weeks. Surely, a US-Iran settlement holds the prospect of a sea change in the geopolitics of the region.

This is where India faces major challenges. During Mukherjee’s recent visit to Tehran, the fact that India-Iran mutual understanding touched rock bottom could not be glossed over. Mukherjee publicly acknowledged that the relationship had to be addressed “afresh.” The chill in the relations occurred under American pressure, as a quid pro quo for the Indo-US nuclear deal. That an effective regional policy in the Persian Gulf hinges on a solid understanding with Iran was overlooked by the UPA Government. But all is not lost. Tehran has already started looking beyond the UPA dispensation.

With regard to the Afghan war, the implications for India are much more direct. In all probability, Obama will endorse Centcom Commander David Petraeus’ strategy—“surge” followed by negotiations with the Taliban. This is one area where Obama will not be able to stick to his belligerent campaign rhetoric, which was largely borne out of pragmatic considerations of not appearing “soft” on terrorism. He is wise enough not to repeat Lyndon Johnson’s epic tragedy of inheriting a war and allowing it to consume his presidency and ultimately destroy his political career, after having secured a historic mandate to rebuild the American society.

However, the success of General Petraeus’ strategy depends on Pakistan’s cooperation (and Russia and Iran’s goodwill). Saudi Arabia will play a significant role by influencing both the Taliban and the Pakistani leadership. Obama will see the necessity of accommodating legitimate Pakistani security interests, which primarily involve down-sizing the extravagant Indian presence in Afghanistan and addressing the question of the Durand Line. Pakistan will insist that no Kabul-Delhi axis work against its security from Afghan soil. The US more or less acknowledges that Pakistan has special interests in Afghanistan.

Kashmir Issue

INDIAN strategists have rushed to include the Kashmir issue in this melting pot. But Obama will be exceedingly naïve to complicate his agenda of Afghan settlement by navigating through the minefields of the intractable Kashmir problem. Nor is the US in a position or frame of mind to jeopardise its strategic relationship with India over the Kashmir issue. Actually, our Achilles’ heel lies elsewhere. The UPA Government failed to take advantage of the relatively calm four-year period to meaningfully address the alienation in the Valley. A great opportunity has been frittered away. The next best thing would be a reasonably good election. The formation of a credible, responsive government taking office in Srinagar becomes a turning point.

In any case, Obama is not going to ask for a redrawing of the map of India. Period. He will appreciate our approach of making the boundaries “irrelevant” within an overall framework of Indo-Pakistan normalisation process. But what India shouldn’t do in this matrix also becomes apparent. The inclusion of J&K in the itinerary of visits by the Israeli and US Army chiefs was certainly avoidable.

Again, India should not make the mistake of getting involved militarily in Afghanistan. Any such involvement inevitably links Afghanistan with the Kashmir issue. We should keep links with all Afghan groups, focus on people-to-people relations and encourage the formation of a broad-based government in Kabul on the basis of intra-Aghan dialogue. Obama will appreciate such a policy.

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

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