Although fluent in honeyed words, in substance, the Obama administration is proving to be a disappointment for India. None of the promises of the George Bush years has been realized: neither hi-technology cooperation nor an effort to ensure that the Indian military be given access to sufficient equipment in order to maintain parity with an expanding PLA.
Now, the choice of a career foreign service officer, Nancy Powell, as the new U.S. ambassador to India underscores the fact that President Obama has left U.S.-India relations with the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, while he focuses on the far more consequential relationship between China and the U.S.
In Beijing, Gary Locke (a former Cabinet-level official known for his antipathy towards Delhi and sympathy for Beijing) has a direct channel of communication with the White House, unlike Powell, who on occasion may find it difficult even to reach Hillary Clinton, given her relatively modest status in the ranks of power players in Washington.
During Powell’s stint in Islamabad, the soft-spoken envoy became very close to President Pervez Musharraf and her “See-No-Evil” reporting ensured that the Bush administration saw both Musharraf and the Pakistan military as reliable assets of the U.S. in the region. She believed that the Pakistan army could be relied on to faithfully implement the policies cooked up in the Departments of State and Defense, and raised very few red flags. So complete was her trust in the suave commando whom she clearly admired, the coup-leader who became the President of Pakistan.
It is no secret that decision-makers on the South Block (location of the Ministries of Defense and External Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office) share with the North Block (the Home Ministry) a deep distrust of the Pakistan military, especially the army. Administrations in India have not seen any improvement in the ground situation, where irregular elements continue to infiltrate the Line of Control in Kashmir, besides entering India via road from Bangladesh and Nepal. During her period in Islamabad, Powell almost totally ignored such ISI activities against India, concentrating on the situation in Afghanistan and satisfying herself (after briefings from President Musharraf) that Pakistan was fully on board as a major non-NATO ally of the U.S. Doubts about such an assessment began only long after she left her post in Pakistan’s capital. After that, she moved on to Nepal, at a time when the Maoist groups were gaining in strength, thanks to the short-sighted policy of the former monarch in clandestinely backing them against democratic forces in Nepal, whom King Gyanendra regarded as a bigger threat than the Maoists.
Although in the course of her career in the State Department, Powell has had the distinction of being ambassador to both Ghana and Uganda. Her preferred region of interest has remained South Asia, where she evolved a distinctly Pakistan army-centric view of the overall situation. Not surprisingly, her appointment as envoy to India has been welcomed by U.S. experts such as Steven Cohen, Michael Krepon, and Teresita Schaffer. All three of them have vigorously praised the Pakistan army in the past, including the military’s quest for a resolution of the Kashmir issue on lines favorable to itself. In an op-ed in a newspaper in India, Shaffer has called Hillary Clinton’s choice “admirable”. No doubt President Musharraf too would agree, given his close personal friendship with the diplomat. Certainly, he will be ready to proffer her advice on how she should go about her task, something that he is known to do whenever he visits Washington.
Although some within the strategic community in India have delusions of grandeur about the role played by Delhi in the Obama calculus; the Powell appointment has once again shown up the differential treatment between approaches towards China and India. While the first country is a personal priority of President Obama, such that he closely monitors policy to that emerging superpower, in the case of India, Obama confines himself to mere words. The actual policy is left to Hillary Clinton who seems to regard Europe (and in particular the U.K. and now France) as not merely experts on India, but as useful interlocutors. While the expertise of the Secretary of State is most pronounced in the matter of specialty restaurants at the Maurya Sheraton hotel in Delhi (her favored haunt while visiting the country), she has very definite views on India’s role. It is that Delhi needs to behave in the manner that the U.S. and the EU decide is proper for it and forget about seeking parity with China. In that sense, the Powell appointment illustrates the much lower position of India in the strategic calculus of the Obama administration, as compared to China which has always had high-powered envoys, beginning with George H W Bush.
Nancy Powell knows the Pakistan military well and she has kept up her contacts with top generals in India’s western neighbor. However, she has cultivated far fewer links with the Indian establishment, except at the formal level. While key elements of the strategic community in India would like the Obama administration to give up its Euro-centric view of India (as a country that needs to be guided and led by the hand, in the manner of a frisky adolescent), such a development seems remote under Powell’s watch. She has been steeped in the State-Defense culture of seeing India near-exclusively from the prism of India-Pakistan relations and can be expected to follow Hillary Clinton’s instincts and insert herself into the subject almost from the day she assumes office in Delhi from Peter Burleigh, the acting envoy, who too shares with Nancy Powell close ties with the U.S. intelligence community and is a distinguished professor at the University of Miami, which has one of the best International Relations programs in the U.S.
It is no secret that the road map of the Indian-strategic community in Afghanistan and Kashmir is very different from that of the Pakistan army. Seeking to bridge this gap has been a task that Powell’s admirers in the U.S. academic community have been trying for decades to accomplish. In the final year of his present term in office, President Obama’s most urgent priority seems to be an orderly retreat from Afghanistan. Powell is among those who have long regarded it possible to enlist the Pakistan army in such a mission, if only India were to make enough concessions. Her task in Delhi may be to follow the example of another Clintonite envoy, Frank Wisner, who spent much of his tenure seeking to persuade India to make concessions on Kashmir.
Although there will be the obligatory cheers of welcome for the Powell appointment, deeper than the manufactured headlines and the anodyne statements, there is resentment that President Obama has distanced himself from the longstanding U.S. policy of sending distinguished Thought Leaders to India, rather than career diplomats such as Frank Wisner and Nancy Powell. The omens for a true India-U.S. alliance remain bleak, given Obama’s handover of India policy to his Secretary of State and her favorites. Where is the “change” that we were promised, Mr. President?
You seem to have gone back to Bill Clinton’s policy, of seeing India only within the prism of relations with Pakistan.