Ignoring India

President Bush strengthened our ties with New Delhi. Obama, however, has made some gaffes that put the improved relationship in jeopardy.

As President Barack Obama surveys the geopolitical landscape that his predecessor bequeathed him, he will find at least two areas where American foreign policy is in relatively good shape and, in fact, stronger than it was when George W. Bush took office. One is Africa, where a whole host of new humanitarian and other assistance initiatives-including, among other programs, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the President's Malaria Initiative (PMI)-as well as the launch of a new Pentagon structure, the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), has left America more engaged with the nations of the continent than ever across the full spectrum of diplomatic, development and defense activities. The other is India, where the Bush administration succeeded in reaching a deal on nuclear cooperation that opened the way for its successor to forge wider and deeper bilateral ties with an emerging power, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described in testimony at her confirmation hearing as "the world's most populous democracy and a nation with growing influence in the world."

Yet there are some worrisome indications that, notwithstanding the reassurances proffered two weeks ago by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs that "the President believes that obviously the U.S. and India are natural friends and natural allies," the nascent strategic partnership being given short shrift-if it is not being subordinated outright to short-term (and shortsighted) preoccupations. This comes despite the fact that, as noted in new report from the Asia Society's Task Force on U.S. Policy towards India, "the compatibility of our values, our strengths, and our global visions offers a unique context for us both to craft an ambitious agenda for the years ahead-for, unusually among two powers, we have no intrinsic conflicts of interest."

First, the new administration seems to have signaled that its approach to south Asia-insofar as it can be said that it even has a coherent policy towards the region-will be focused predominantly on Afghanistan and Pakistan. After thrilling them with his election in November, President Obama almost immediately turned around and raised the hackles of India's chattering classes by omitting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh from the list of the two dozen or so world leaders he reached out to, even though Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari received one of the courtesy telephone calls. Then, two days after the inauguration, came the appointment of former-U.S. ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke as special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Three weeks later, the announcement remains prominently displayed on the homepage of the U.S. embassy in New Delhi where its presence contrasts starkly with the absence of any word on a successor to Ambassador David C. Mulford who, like all political appointees of the Bush administration, submitted his resignation on January 20.

Second, even more disconcerting, especially to observers in India, is the Obama team's apparent acquiescence to a moral equivalency between India's control of Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan's support of jihadists across the entire region-a perspective that fundamentally misreads the realities on the ground. In the 2007 Foreign Affairs article outlining his foreign policy, the then-junior senator from Illinois pledged that he would

encourage dialogue between Pakistan and India to work toward resolving their dispute over Kashmir and between Afghanistan and Pakistan to resolve their historic differences and develop the Pashtun border region. If Pakistan can look toward the east with greater confidence, it will be less likely to believe that its interests are best advanced through cooperation with the Taliban.

On the very eve of his election, Barack Obama repeated this argument and raised the possibility of appointing former-President Bill Clinton as a special envoy to deal with the Kashmiri question, causing Asia security expert Selig Harrison to observe last month in a Washington Times commentary that: