August 5, 2008

Positioning and Repositioning

The following article appeared in the August 2008 edition of the Observer Research Foundation's US Election Monitor.

How McCain, Obama Are Repositioning Themselves

With their parties’ nominations for president firmly secured for the last two months, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama have been actively repositioning themselves for November’s general election. Obama, who had secured the support of the left in the primaries, has begun to rebrand himself as a centrist, resulting occasionally in seemingly contradictory statements. “I would pursue common-sense measures such as offering tax incentives to companies that create jobs in the U.S., undertaking policies such as supporting growth sectors like renewable energy and building up our infrastructure that will lead to creation of well-paying jobs and, most importantly, investing in education and job retraining programmes,” he said, when questioned on his position regarding outsourcing in a recent interview. Meanwhile McCain, who has traditionally enjoyed strong centrist credentials, has been working hard to win over the right.

Whatever their rhetoric, both candidates appear likely to be centrist presidents. McCain’s attempt at repositioning himself as a staunch conservative appears half-hearted and disingenuous. Obama, meanwhile, has made bipartisanship and unity a strong theme, and his campaign has repeatedly raised the possibility of his appointing Republicans to key positions in his administration. For example, his senior foreign policy advisors have suggested that Defense Secretary Robert Gates may retain a role in a Democratic administration. Gates may be a latecomer to India but he has reportedly expressed great interest in deepening the bilateral defense relationship.

Recent polls suggest that neither Obama nor McCain is well-understood in India. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in April this year indicated that Obama had a confidence rating of 33 percent and McCain a rating of 28 percent. These contrast with the confidence rating of George W. Bush in India, which remains remarkably high at 55 percent. But with overwhelmingly positive news coverage concerning Obama in the United States, Europe and elsewhere, the Indian media has also begun showing great interest in him.

Obama’s reputation both at home and abroad is often rooted not in his policy platforms, but rather in his youth, charisma and engaging personality, and the same holds true in India. Reports that he carries a Hanuman talisman and his campaign’s statement mourning the death of Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw both resonated well in the Indian press, as did Obama’s article calling the United States and India “natural partners”. In contrast, a memo issued by his campaign last year caricaturing rival Hillary Clinton as a Senator from Punjab received much criticism from Indians and Indian-Americans. Such actions and traits – both negative and positive – have overshadowed his statements and actions concerning key policies which may affect India.

With few exceptions, the differences in foreign policy between McCain and Obama, particularly those with relevance to India, are likely to be insignificant. The two candidates’ positions are likely to converge, more or less, on trade, immigration, Asian security and climate change. The exceptions, however, are deserving of attention.

Obama’s willingness to engage with Tehran, for example, ought to be welcomed by South Block. U.S.-Iran tensions have placed India in a bind only too often in recent years. On non-proliferation, however, McCain is likely to be much more accepting of India and would be less eager to embrace international non-proliferation norms which would be seen by New Delhi as intrusive or compromising. Obama, for his part, is expected to support a renewed commitment to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and a beginning of negotiations for a fissile material cut-off treaty (FMCT). In addition, Obama’s reluctance to support the U.S.-India nuclear agreement should be noted, as should his attempt to introduce a so-called “killer amendment” to the Hyde Act in 2006.

Pakistan remains something of a wild card. Obama is likely to experiment with a long-term investment in Pakistan’s socio-economic development, possibly at the expense of military aid. If successful, this may prove indirectly beneficial to India. However, a failure to adequately monitor developmental aid may only benefit Pakistan’s military and thereby prove counterproductive. In addition, an Obama administration’s desire to assuage Pakistani insecurities may lead to more pressure on New Delhi to reach a settlement on Kashmir. Since the inauguration of the composite dialogue, the Bush administration has refrained from intervening diplomatically on Kashmir. Should an Obama administration end American non-intervention, it would only irk both India and Pakistan.

Finally, Afghanistan will remain a long-term problem for the United States. Obama is almost certainly likely to renew the focus on the war against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan. This could include a diversion of U.S. troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, as well as requests to the United States’ European allies to increase their troop contributions and levels of engagement. Should the Europeans decline (a greater military role in Afghanistan will no doubt prove unpopular with the European public despite their leaders’ enthusiasms) and Pakistan continue to prove either unwilling or unable to crack down on militancy in FATA, the Obama administration would find itself in a serious bind. Under these circumstances, deeper cooperation with India in Afghanistan on intelligence, development and perhaps even security may be considered by the U.S. government. The Indian government, for its part, should begin planning for such a contingency.