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:
President-elect Barack Obama has made his first big foreign-policy mistake-pledging U.S. intervention in the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan. While the Kashmir issue "is obviously a tar pit diplomatically," he announced, one of the "critical tasks" for his administration will be "to get a special envoy in there to figure out a plausible approach." . . . The rationale for intervention is that fear of India requires Pakistan to strengthen its western front in Afghanistan by supporting the Taliban. But the reason for Pakistani support of the Taliban and jihadi forces in Kashmir is that its military and intelligence agencies are riddled with Islamists.
Appearing last week on Karan Thapar's widely-watched India Tonight news program, Indian National Security Advisor M. K. Narayanan blasted Obama, saying the U.S. president was "barking up the wrong tree" for thinking that "there is some kind of a link between the settlement on Pakistan's western border and the Kashmir issue." Moreover, if the Obama administration's concern is Afghanistan, then, as I noted here six months ago before the November attacks in Mumbai, New Delhi's interests in combating Islamist extremism and stabilizing Afghanistan align more closely with Washington's than Islamabad's ever will. After all, the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba and other terrorist groups have been aided by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, while India was raising the alarm about them long before anyone else could be bothered. Moreover, India is currently one of largest bilateral donors to Afghanistan with more than $940 million committed.
Third, while President Obama, to his credit, has picked respected centrists for key positions on his economic team-even naming Ronald Reagan's chief economic advisor, Martin S. Feldstein, to the new Economic Recovery Advisory Board-the fact that his presidential campaign pandered to populist fears about outsourcing and free-trade agreements raises concerns that the administration will use the current crisis as a pretext to slow down or even roll back the progress being made in trade talks by the U.S.-India Trade Policy Forum, established in 2005. (Currently the United States is India's largest trading partner, with bilateral commerce worth some $41.6 billion in 2007. America is also the largest source of foreign investment in India.) Indeed, one of the most egregious protectionist elements in the stimulus bill making its way through Congress, the ban on using imported iron and steel in infrastructure projects, is already being interpreted in India as a swipe at two of the country's largest firms, ArcelorMittal and Tata Steel, respectively the world's largest and sixth largest steel producers.
Fourth, although no prejudicial steps have yet been taken in this direction, no one has forgotten that then-Senator Obama was the author of a "killer" amendment aimed at eviscerating the historic 2006 Henry J. Hyde United States-India Peaceful Atomic Cooperation Act, which cleared the way for India to buy U.S. nuclear reactors and fuel for civilian use. While the subsequent "123 Agreement" signed last fall by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee opens the door for American and Indian firms to participate in each other's civil nuclear-energy sector, it remains to be seen how easy it will be to get licenses from Obama's appointees to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. (There is presently one vacancy on the five-member panel with the terms of two other commissioners expiring within the year.) This task will be further complicated if the United States ratifies the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (a step which the president has promised to see done) and India, as is likely, does not yield to pressure to sign the accord.
Given the incredible progress that has been made in U.S.-India relations over the course of the last decade, it would be absurd to declare that an irreparable breach has been opened up. Furthermore, President Obama is just settling into the White House and the Indian general elections, which may well bring a new occupant to the South Block of New Delhi's Raisina Hill, are due by May. Thus, there is a narrow window during which it will be possible to quickly put aside the new administration's rather awkward first interactions with India, without any great damage done to the foundations underlying the geostrategic partnership. This rare opportunity to smooth tensions and recalibrate our approach is one which President Obama and his foreign-policy team would be well advised to avail themselves of.
J. Peter Pham is director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University and a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.