Panetta attempts to clean up after Obama in India

During a two-day stay in India, Secretary of Defense Panetta urged India to: (1) take a larger role in Afghanistan and (2) support the Obama administration’s new policy that purports to counterbalance China’s growing influence and military power.

This shouldn’t have been a hard sell. India has an interest in as much stability as can be achieved in Afghanistan because instability there might well benefit Pakistan. And India has an obvious interest in not seeing China run rampant in the region.

Unfortunately, Panetta’s mission to India turned out not to be so easy. For one thing, the U.S. will be withdrawing combat troops from Afghanistan. As Sadanand Dhume of AEI put it, “the last thing Indian leaders want is to be left carrying the can while the U.S. and its allies rush for the exits.”

For another thing, it appears that India does not take Obama’s new, China-oriented defense policy seriously. As William Wan of the Washington Post reports, “India and other Asian countries question[] whether the United States’ new China pivot is merely rhetoric given the severe spending cuts the United States faces in coming years.” An Obama policy that’s “just words.” Say it isn’t so.

Finally, there is the ill-will that the Obama administration generated by foolishly tilting toward Pakistan in its first years. Belatedly, Obama has realized what was obvious to Presidents Clinton and Bush — that, in the words of the Post’s Wan, “India is in many ways a linchpin for U.S. interests in the region.”

But India still recalls the days when Secretary of State Clinton couldn’t be bothered to stop in India on her Asia tour. It must wonder whether Obama’s America is a true friend. It must also wonder whether Obama’s America is steadfast enough to be a particularly valuable friend to have. If India perceives China as the “strong horse,” it cannot be expected to play a serious part in counterbalancing China pursuant to an American plan.

The Post’s Wan writes that “there is a perception among experts on both sides that the [U.S. – India] relationship has plateaued.” This is revisionist history in service of President Obama. The relationship peaked under President Bush and was willfully undermined by Obama. Now Panetta and others are attempting to clean up the mess. It won’t be easy.