All eyes are on Washington as President Obama’s new team begins to put its stamp on events. The first 100 days are considered crucial in this respect and the new leader has already indicated many of his priorities. Some of these are forced on him, for there is little choice about placing the economy at the top of the list. The USA is weighed down by economic difficulty and there are great hopes that Mr. Obama will do much to improve matters. Yet the joyful, multi-party welcome accorded to him has already slipped slightly, for the remedies and proposals he quickly unveiled to support the faltering economy have drawn some criticism from a few prominent legislators across the aisle. Presumably there will have to be a good deal of discussion and debate before the legislative endorsement sought by the new Administration is obtained.
No such grumbling has been heard about the foreign policy initiatives made public so far. The most important of these was decided some time ago, which is the appointment of Senator Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. She has moved into her new office in a manner that bespeaks her intention to be in command. It is quite often the case that the topmost political leader, be it President or Prime Minister or anything else, likes to run foreign policy himself, and the nominal head of the foreign ministry has a hard time exercising the necessary authority. This is not how the new Administration proposes to work, nor would a proven leader like Mrs. Clinton readily fall into a subordinate role within her own domain. So far as India is concerned, it will be recalled that she was a pathfinder for President Clinton when she came here in 1995. Relations between the two countries were still uncertain at that stage and the success of her visit played a considerable part in improving them. Much has happened since but she comes to office with her own individual experience of India to draw upon, which can be a useful asset.
With all this, the most striking initial decisions affecting the USA’s standing in the world come unambiguously from the President himself. He has lost no time in moving to announce that the notorious US prison in Guantanamo is to be shut. It has cost the USA heavily in terms of prestige and reputation, and its closing down is long overdue. The whole process of picking up suspects, detaining them without trial and denying them all legal recourse is to be reviewed and brought to an end. This amounts to a tacit acknowledgement of wrongdoing, and already demands for restitution and compensation to the sufferers have been raised. More will surely be heard on this subject in the months ahead.
For now, the focus is on the appointment of two senior representatives, respectively for the Middle East and for Afghanistan/Pakistan. Former Senator George Mitchell, special envoy for Arab-Israeli affairs, is to use the negotiating skills and reserves of patience for which he is renowned in a fresh US-directed effort to find peace in the Middle East. As promised before his installation, this is one of Mr. Obama’s first major diplomatic initiatives, and indeed Mr. Mitchell is already on his way to the area. He is widely credited with providing the indispensable external support in the early 1990s that helped to bridge the gap between the disputing Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. When problems re-surfaced a few years later, he returned to the scene and played a role in the process leading to the famous ‘Good Friday Agreement’ of 1998 which remains in effect and underpins peace in the area. Thus his credentials as a peacemaker are well established. Mr. Mitchell is well placed to head a new US effort and his appointment has been well received.
The second figure is Mr. Richard Holbrooke, designated special representative and responsible for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is a seasoned diplomat best known for his success in leading the negotiations that brought an end to the Bosnian war in 1995 – the Dayton Peace Agreements. Some accounts suggest that this was a somewhat rough business with the combatants having to be pushed hard before they agreed to forgo their claims; also that the hostilities were permitted to be prolonged, at civilian cost, before military leaders could be brought to heel. Yet Dayton has held and though born in blood, it can be regarded as a longer term success. Now Mr. Holbrooke is to take on the important foreign priority of his President, Afghanistan, where US commitment on the ground is set to increase substantially. With Kabul’s authority on the ebb, and insurgent bands closing in, it is a tough and unenviable assignment.
There will be an understandable tendency in India to concentrate on the fact that Pakistan is to be within Mr. Holbrooke’s sights, the implication being that more will be required of it to curb terrorists based on its territory, and that would be to Indiabenefit. Something similar was anticipated when the ‘war on terror’ brought US troops into Afghanistan where they rapidly dislodged the Taliban but that war did little to ease India’s problems. Now, the Taliban are back, and after so many years of propping up a very shaky regime, the USA has a real fight on its hands. While Pakistan will doubtless be pressed to step up its security activity on the border, the real US preoccupation is bound to be within Afghanistan itself. The strategy to pacify that country so long pursued by NATO under US leadership has not succeeded, so basic changes will have to be considered. Some observers point out that NATO has invested only a fraction of what the former Soviet Union had put into that country, despite which it had ultimately to leave in disarray. The fear is that the USA may suffer the same fate. The situation is fraught and one should expect a tight US focus on what happens within Afghanistan itself and within its immediate environs. Terrorists based in Pakistan who threaten others, especially India, may have less attention directed towards them. The more welcome part of this is that there would be reduced incentive for the USA to get involved in Kashmir where it would be an unsolicited interlocutor. Thus as of now, it is not clear whether, or in what manner, India will be affected by the recent developments in Washington.
One should not lose sight of indications that President Obama is contemplating an early visit to a major Muslim country – Indonesia has been mentioned – to try to restore goodwill between the West and the Islamic world. This is another initiative that would set him apart from his predecessor and establish a distinctive imprint for his foreign policy.
The writer is a former Foreign Secretary of India