Leon Panetta attempts to clean up after his President

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has embarked on a nine-day trip to Asia, during which he will brief our allies on America’s new Pacific-oriented defense strategy. In its briefings on the trip, Defense Department officials have stressed the importance of India to U.S. strategy, noting that it is the only country specifically mentioned in the strategic guidance document.

Along the same lines, Deputy Secretary Ashton Carter said yesterday in a speech at AEI that the U.S is destined to draw closer to India because India is “a country we know is a kindred soul.”

Carter’s statement is true, and obviously so. But it raises the question of why the Obama administration snubbed India for so long, while tilting towards Pakistan – a country we know is not a “kindred soul.” It’s a question I tried to answer here. Among the reasons, in my view, is that Obama considers India, as he considers Israel, too kindred.

Whatever the motivation, the snub has been indisputable. Unlike Secretary Panetta, Hillary Clinton conspicuously excluded India from her first visit to Asia. As for President Obama himself, he alienated India as a candidate and as president-elect by making an issue of Pakistan’s claims over Kashmir. And though he backtracked on this, he has continued to irritate India through his hectoring over the out-sourcing of jobs.

India has not been amused. It elected to purchase French jets, instead of American ones, as the mainstay of its air force. India paid $15 billion for planes that the French manufacturer had not been able to sell abroad in 15 years. India rejected bids for Boeing’s F-18 Hornet and Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Falcon. To add insult to injury, it also chose to lease a nuclear submarine from the Russians. In addition, India has been reluctant to cooperate fully with sanctions against Iran, on whom it relies for 12 percent of its oil.

Thus, Deputy Secretary Carter clearly was spinning when he claimed that Panetta’s visit to India is part of a 10-year history of tightening relations. The tightening began late in the Clinton years, accelerated under President Bush, but was deliberately derailed under Obama.

Fortunately, at least on this issue, the administration apparently has recognized the error of its ways.