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Obama may re-hyphenate India and Pakistan

November 05, 2008

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The US presidential campaign is over and the transition drill has begun. Senator Barack Obama [Images] will take over as President on January 20, 2009, but his immense work as the President-elect would have already begun from the moment he left the dais after making his victory speech.

Americans call it the period of transition. It is during this period that the President-elect chooses his team of Cabinet members and  senior officials, decides on his policy priorities and works out his goals during the first 100 days of his administration and thereafter. Those who would constitute the hard core of his transition team, would start co-ordinating with the outgoing Bush administration.

Senior officials of the US Secret Service, which protects the President and the Vice-President, would have already called on him and set in place the arrangements for his security. Other officials of the Bush Administration would be calling on him and his close advisers to brief them on the actions of the outgoing administration.

He will be President of the US only from January 20, but from November 5 he will be entitled to a regular briefing by the director of the Central Intelligence Agency and the director, National Intelligence, on important world developments. The outgoing administration would not take any major decision or initiative or action without keeping him in the picture.

Speculation over his Cabinet members and other senior advisers started days before the elections in anticipation of a certain victory for him. In a recent article, The Independent, London [Images], put its bet on the following:

Secretary of State: John Kerry (Senator from Massachusetts and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate), Richard Holbrooke (former UN Ambassador), Bill Richardson (governor of New Mexico and former UN ambassador).

Secretary of Defence: Robert Gates (current Pentagon chief), Retired General Wesley Clark (2004 Democratic presidential aspirant), Chuck Hagel (outgoing Republican Senator from Nebraska).

Treasury Secretary: Laura Tyson (former economic adviser to President Clinton), Timothy Geithner (president, New York Fed), Paul Volcker (former Federal Reserve chairman).

National Security Adviser: Susan Rice (Obama's top foreign policy adviser), Retired General Anthony Zinni (former C-in-C, Central Command), Samantha Power (former Obama foreign policy adviser).

Others: Colin Powell, possible foreign policy special envoy/troubleshooter; Hillary Clinton [Images], healthcare czarina.

There could be surprises because Obama will have a political debt to repay to those who supported him and they may want some of their nominees to be accommodated.

India will have no special reasons to be concerned over the possibility of any of the persons mentioned by The Independent joining the Cabinet, except possibly Holbrooke, whose taking over as Secretary of State could lead to a re-hyphenation of Indo-Pakistan relations, bringing back the hyphen which had been removed by President George Bush [Images] and his Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.

Another person of concern to India would be Madeleine Albright, who was Secretary of State under Bill Clinton [Images]. Though The Independent did not mention her, she was reportedly a member of the inner circle which was advising Obama on foreign policy matters during the campaign.

India will also put a question mark on Colin Powell, who was not particularly well disposed towards India during Bush's first term when he was Secretary of State. It was only after he was replaced by Rice that Indo-US relations really started moving forward with many initiatives to acknowledge India's importance as a major power on par with China. Concerns over Pakistani sensitivities ceased to be an inhibiting factor in US policy-making with regard to India. Zinni is an unknown quantity in India. He has many friends in Pakistan's armed forces.

It is still 10 weeks before Obama takes over as the President. One does not know how the economies of the US and the rest of the world would move during this period. Till now, the US and the rest of the world have been seeing the impact of the melt-down only on the moneyed class -- banks, stock markets, business companies, people who have the money to dabble in stock markets and to keep deposits in banks. The world is yet to see its impact on the common man, who is worried only about his day-to-day living and not about stock markets, mutual funds and banks. The impact on the common man would become evident by the time Obama takes over as President.

The common people in the US and the rest of the world will be watching how he deals with the impact on their lives. Understandably, apart from rhetoric, Obama was sparse in his policy pronouncements on the economic crisis. This was understandable because he had to take care that any unwise remarks by him did not add to the prevailing nervousness in the market. The economy would occupy a major part of his attention during his first few weeks in office.

His pronouncements on India and Pakistan, which were music to the ears of people in India in the initial months of the campaign, became jarring during its closing days. In the initial months of his campaign he praised India and supported the initiatives taken by the Bush administration in relation to India. He was very critical of Pakistan's inadequate co-operation with the US in the war against Al Qaeda [Images]. He also criticised the Bush Administration for giving weapons to Pakistan, which it could use only against India and not against the Al Qaeda, under the pretext of strengthening its counter-terrorism capability. He hardly spoke of Indo-Pakistan issues.

But as the campaign reached its culmination, he started speaking of the Kashmir issue in a language which reminded one of the language from the past by officials of the Clinton Administration. Obama's entourage and Gen David H Petraeus, former commander of the Multi-National Force in Iraq, who took over as commander of the US Central Command on October 31 and is currently on a visit to Pakistan and Afghanistan, have one thing in common -- they listen a lot to the assessments and recommendations of Ahmed Rashid, the Pakistani analyst who has written extensively on the Taliban [Images] and the war against terrorism.

In fact, Petraeus has reportedly nominated Ahmed Rashid and Shuja Nawaz, author of the recently published book on Pakistani Army called Crossed Swords, as members of a brains trust to advise him on a new strategy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Ahmed Rashid has been arguing for some months now that the Pakistani Army cannot be expected to co-operate wholeheartedly with the US Armed Forces in the war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban unless there is a forward movement in settling the Kashmir issue and India is pressured to cut down its presence in Afghanistan. There were not many takers for his arguments in the Bush Administration. But they have already started influencing the thinking of many who are close to Obama.

So will he exercise pressure on India on Kashmir and its role in Afghanistan after he takes over or will he let his pre-election remarks remain without follow-up action? This is a question which should worry Indian policy-makers.

Obama's policy towards China is also likely to be different from that of the Bush Administration. He will continue to strengthen the US's strategic relations with India, the foundations for which were laid by Bush and Rice, but the sensitivities of China and Pakistan could once again become inhibiting factors in determining the pace and extent of the relationship. He is unlikely to subscribe to the wisdom of building up India as a counter to China. That was the unstated wisdom behind the policies of the Bush Administration towards India.

Obama was supportive of the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement. Many of the non-governmental experts, who were critical of the agreement, have a greater audience for their views in the Democratic Party than in the Republican Party. They would try to see that the Hyde Act is observed in letter and spirit in the implementation of the agreement. If their views prevail, one could see a slowdown in Indo-US co-operation in nuclear matters.

Under Bush, Indo-US relations developed like never before because he was a great admirer of India and was convinced of the need to encourage the emergence of India as a major Asian power on par with China. Obama has so far not given any indication of a similar admiration and conviction.

Barring John F Kennedy, Democratic Presidents were not very positive towards India. They always thought of India tactically and not strategically. Many major initiatives towards India came from Republican Presidents who held office after Richard Nixon whose dislike of India -- and particularly Indira Gandhi [Images] -- was well-known. There was a new page in Indo-US relations under Bush. This was facilitated by the decline in the influence of some Washington-based think tanks and their academics on policy-making. With the return of a Democrat to the White House, these old academic warriors are already coming out of their eight-year-long hibernation and will try to influence the new President in his thinking and policies. Their views are no different from those of the like of Ahmed Rashid.

We should not hesitate to make it clear to the new administration that while we are as keen as before to strengthen our strategic relations with the US, this cannot be at the expense of our vital national interests in matters like Kashmir and Afghanistan.

The writer is Additional Secretary (retired), Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, New Delhi [Images], and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: seventyone2@gmail.com


B Raman



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