Obama’s foreign policy — good enough for government work? Part Two

In the first part of this series, I examined the Obama administration’s policy towards Pakistan, arguing that the president got Pakistan wrong. His policy was predicated on making Pakistan a full-fledged ally in the war in Afghanistan. Pakistan played on this aspiration to secure aid, but was never really our ally.

In this post, I will consider the opposite side of this coin – Obama administration policy towards India, Pakistan’s great adversary.

According to Sunil Dasgupta, in an article in the April issue of Current History, beginning in the late 1990s under President Clinton, America tilted strongly towards India. The tilt was manifested during the 1999 Kargil War, when Clinton demanded the withdrawal of Pakistani forces from the Kargil region, and made it clear to Pakistan that the U.S. would not bail out Pakistan if India launched a major attack. The U.S. also threatened to block a $100 million tranche of an IMF loan scheduled to be disbursed to Pakistan. The next year, Clinton visited India, and stopped at a Pakistani airport to lecture Pakistan about terrorism.

Under President Bush, America stepped up its cooperation with India. One important fruit of this cooperation was a nuclear deal that legitimized India’s nuclear program in exchange for bringing its civilian program under international safeguards. When Pakistan sought a similar deal, the Bush administration responded that such deals were reserved for responsible states.

The partnership with India extended beyond nuclear issues. As the New York Times recounts, “the American and Indian militaries increased joint exercises; [the nations] exchanged trade delegations; their companies won expanded access to the other’s markets; and U.S. officials began to talk up India as a rising great power in a new century.”

Our tilt towards India surely occurred with an eye towards geo-politics. India was seen as a counter-balance to China. But it also seems probable that Bush leaned towards India, as opposed to Pakistan and China, based on values and affinity. At a minimum, we can say, as Ashutosh Varshney a South Asia specialist at Brown University has, that “Bush’s ideology convinced him that, of the two rising stars on the world stage, India was preferable.”

I don’t know whether Obama shares this view, but there is no question that he quickly put U.S. relations with India on a less happy trajectory. During the 2008 campaign, Obama had said that Kashmir was central to stability in the region, and during the transition phase, he made Richard Holbrooke his special envoy for Afghanistan, Pakistan “and related matters.” India reasonably believed that “related matters” meant India and Kashmir. And India was mindful of Holbrooke’s history as a hard-nosed negotiator of peace settlements (he was nicknamed “The Bulldozer” for his arm-twisting in connection with the settlement in Dayton that ended the war in Bosnia). India views Kashmir as an internal matter and rejects the notion that outsiders have any business interfering. A good, reliable ally would respect that position, rather than seizing upon the dispute as a means of inducing Pakistan to help out in Afghanistan.

Ultimately, the State Department backed down, publicly stating that Kashmir was not part of Holbrooke’s mandate. However, the seeds of distrust had been planted, and continued to grow as Obama worked to curry favor with Pakistan in other ways. It did not help that Hillary Clinton skipped India during her first tour of Asia. Obama did visit India in November 2010. But according to Dasgupta, relations have not improved significantly as a result. Obama’s stance on corporate out-sourcing, for example, continues to irritate India.

Obama’s chickens may have come home to roost in February of this year , when India 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.

The same chickens may be coming home to roost in another way. The U.S. finally has become disenchanted with Pakistan, and China is certainly no ally. As Presidents Clinton and Bush figured out, if we’re going to have a reliable ally among the major powers in the region, that ally will be India. But Obama seems to have burned too many bridges for that alliance to flourish while he’s in office.

That’s not good enough even for government work.