The following article originally appeared in The Indian Express on April 23, 2008.
With a civilian nuclear deal hanging in the balance, a depressing forecast for the global economy and the spectre of Islamic extremism continuing to haunt the subcontinent, the US presidential elections are of special interest in India. From the Indian perspective, Barack Obama, who, regardless of the results of Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primary, remains favoured to win the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, cuts an enigmatic figure.
Obama voted for the Hyde Act in 2006, but famously introduced an amendment that threatened fuel supply assurances to India. He also voted in favour of so-called ‘killer amendments’ which would have made the deal impossible from India’s vantage point. Obama has spoken out against outsourcing and in favour of more rigorous international measures to combat climate change, but has also taken a less lenient position on military aid to Pakistan. He has frequently positioned himself to the left of rival Hillary Clinton, but has often spoken of reaching across the political aisle to work with Republicans.
Given his increasingly bitter competition with Clinton for the nomination, it is surprising that Obama’s foreign policy advisory team is led by several former officials from her husband’s administration — his National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, the former Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Susan Rice, ex-Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig, and Greg Craig, who was Director of Policy Planning in the State Department and who defended Bill Clinton during his impeachment trial in 1999 — as well as former Senate staffer Denis McDonough. Starting in 2006, these core advisers began to bring together teams of experts on international affairs to advise the campaign on specific issues. Now numbering well over a hundred, these experts have varying degrees of involvement in the campaign.
A number of radical changes can be expected from an Obama foreign policy, some of which will directly affect India. Obama and his foreign policy advisers will almost certainly emphasise a renewal of the non-proliferation agenda. Although the exact shape and scope of their policies is uncertain, it would likely involve a revival of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, especially if the Democrats were to win at least 60 seats in the Senate. It may also mean altering or amending aspects of the civilian nuclear deal with India.
“The Democrats are much more likely to want to revisit the nuclear proliferation implications [of the nuclear deal],” says Bruce Riedel, the former National Security Council Senior Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs, who is among Obama’s advisers. “That would complicate the relationship with New Delhi.”
However, Obama and his fellow Democrats’ emphasis on a stringent climate regime to succeed the Kyoto Protocol may be at odds with the non-proliferation agenda, as civilian nuclear energy begins to be viewed more widely as a clean alternative to fossil fuels. “This gets into priorities,” says Riedel. “Once there’s a new president there’ll be a jockeying for what the priority will be.”
Regardless of the nuclear dimensions of the relationship, there is a feeling that an Obama presidency would continue emphasising the importance of a growing India. “There’s talk of a strategic partnership with India. The Obama campaign buys into that,” says Riedel. “As president, he will place the same priority on India as Bush did, and Clinton did before him.” Philip Gordon, another Obama adviser who was Director for European Affairs in Clinton’s National Security Council, agrees. “India is an increasingly important country,” he says. “It’s a recognition of reality.”
The widespread speculation that Obama will include leading Republicans in his administration may also assuage fears in New Delhi of a significant break from Bush’s policies towards India. “Obama has a big theme of bringing people together,” says Gordon. “It’s an obvious way of manifesting his interest in working across party lines.”
The crucial issue in the region, however, is the United States’ continuing involvement in Afghanistan and, in that context, its relationship with Pakistan. Obama would likely favour the retention of a military presence in Afghanistan under a NATO banner. “Obama has repeatedly stated that not enough attention has been paid to Afghanistan and Pakistan,” says Gordon.
Riedel agrees that there will be a renewed focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan under an Obama presidency. “Obama is determined to put a lot more resources into the war in Afghanistan — and it’s overlapped into Pakistan — than either a McCain presidency would or the Bush administration did.” He adds that Obama sees Afghanistan and Pakistan as “the central front of the war against al Qaeda and the war against extremism.”
While Obama may take a tougher line with Pakistan, and make military aid conditional upon Pakistan’s performance in combating the Taliban and al Qaeda, Riedel disagrees with the view, prevalent in Pakistan, that Obama dislikes that country. Instead, he says that Obama is a strong critic of the “Musharraf-centric Pakistan policy” being pursued by the Bush Administration. He believes that Obama is likely to be supportive of the present PPP-led government, unless it were to engage the Taliban, a move which would prove extremely unpopular in the United States.
Obama’s advisers say the candidate’s background and personal experiences are what ultimately set him apart from the other contenders for the presidency. “He looks at the world a different way from a typical American president,” says Gordon. Obama, whose father was from Kenya, lived for four years as a child in Indonesia. His campaign also recently revealed that he had visited Karachi and Hyderabad as a college student, although they did not specify whether the latter was the Indian or Pakistani city.