India and Obama: A Failing Relationship

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In 10 short months, Barack Obama has done much to dissolve the close relationship with India that took decades to build, and now will have to be rebuilt again…without the public or our media noticing at all.

During the Cold War, India led the non-aligned movement of third world countries trying to stay out of the U.S.A. vs. Soviet Union political dynamic.  However, India had built close economic ties to the Soviets.  After the fall, India was left out in the cold.  They had alienated the US after years of opposing them, and the Russians were a second rate power.

Then came Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.  Clinton viewed India as a strategic partner.  The largest democracy in the world should be allied with the world’s most powerful democracy.  Clinton saw India as a counterweight to the Chinese rise in the east.

George W. Bush furthered the relationship more than anyone could have imagine.  India is one of the countries in which Bush is beloved.  Bush opened up trade, treated India as an equal, and not only treated them as a strategic partner, but as a true ally in political, economic and military terms.

The U.S. and India enjoyed close military ties and performed their first large scale joint military exercises together.  India actually considered sending troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, but didn’t because of various political roadblocks. NASA and the Indian space agency have worked closely in the last decade on multiple missions, including the very successful Indian Chandrayaan-1 mission to the moon, which helped NASA determine there was, in fact, water on the moon; a critical element for future missions deeper into space.  And Bush was the first western power to treat India as a real nuclear power, putting his political capital behind the push to allow for greater U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation.

In Afghanistan, India is the second largest supplier of funds and materials after the United States.  Enough so that Pakistan is now worried about an Afghan-India alliance.  Even the Obama Administration appears to be  buying into the nonsense, trying to downplay Indian influence in the country.

And somehow, Obama has managed to seriously damage the relationship.

In a symbolic bid to placate India, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is to be honored with Barack Obama’s first state dinner as President; a great honor, to be sure.  Singh’s visit, however, comes at a delicate time. Indians are angered over a perception that Obama neglected India during his recent trip to Asia and seemed to endorse a stronger role for China in India’s sensitive dealings with Pakistan.

“There’s a certain amount of Bush nostalgia,” said Teresita Schaffer, a former State Department South Asia specialist and U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka.  While Bush was seen as having an emotional and ideological connection to the country, she said, Obama’s connection is seen as cerebral and as being eroded by domestic problems and by the focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Obama has taken a strategic view the China-Pakistani axis is more important to American interests in Afghanistan and Iran than India.  It was a calculated move, as Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden and others have targeted Pakistan and China for numerous visits this year, while basically ignoring India.

Obama has also put more pressure on India than they would like.  He lectured India about making greater concessions in Kashmir, just weeks before Pakistani terrorists attacked Mumbai in the largest scale international terror attacks since 9/11.

The Obama trip to China this week also rankled the Indians.  Obama bent over backwards (literally and figuratively)  to placate the Chinese.  Yet, Obama did not speak out strongly on human rights, Tibet, the Dalai Lama, or less importantly, border disputes on the Indo-Chinese border that have been ongoing for half a century.  Then, the cherry on top was a joint statement by Obama and Hu that mentioned sensitive India-Pakistan ties has ignited anger in India.  India sees no outsider role for their negotiations with Pakistan on Kashmir, whether it be the U.S., the U.N., or certainly China.  C. Raja Mohan, a leading Indian strategic analyst, said at a Washington think tank that encouraging a stronger role for China in South Asia is like “welcoming the fox into the chicken coop.”  Obama’s mishandling of the issue further deteriorates his credibility on the subcontinent.

Obama, time and again, has shown complete ignorance when it comes to his understanding of India and the political dynamic in the subcontinent.  India (rightfully so) views itself among the world’s superpowers.  It wants to work with the world community, unlike China and others.  But it has no intention to be dictated to, by the U.S., China, nor anyone else.  Obama would be wise to look back at the Bush and Clinton years, and see what he can learn, because so far, he is failing in this key relationship.

UPDATE:  Excellent piece in the Daily Beast by Tunku Varadarajan, with similar commentary.

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