Saturday 24 December 2011

Musharraf’s admirer is new US envoy to India (PO)

By M D Nalapat
The choice of a career foreign service officer, Nancy Powell, as the new US ambassador to India, underlines the fact that President Obama has left relations with India to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, while he focuses on the far more consequential relationship between China and the US. In Beijing, Gary Locke (a former Cabinet-level official known for his antipathy to Delhi and sympathy for Beijing) has a direct channel of communication with the White House, unlike Powell, who on occasion will find it difficult even to reach Hillary Clinton, given her modest status in the pantheon of power players in Washington. During her stint in Islamabad, the soft-spoken envoy became very close to President Pervez Musharraf, and her reporting helped ensure that the Bush administration saw both Musharraf as well as the Pakistan military as reliable assets of the US in the region. Powell 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 then (coup-selected) President of Pakistan.

It is no secret that decision-makers in South Block (location of the Ministries of Defense and External Affairs, as well as the Prime Minister’s Office) share with North Block (the Home Ministry) a deep distrust of the Pakistan military, especially the army. Although US and EU diplomats have over the years been lyrical about the “constructive approach” of the men in khaki, 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 by land from Bangladesh and Nepal. During her period in Islamabad, Powell almost totally ignored such activities, concentrating on the situation in Afghanistan, and satisfying herself (after frequent briefings from President Musharraf and his key assistants) that Pakistan was fully on board as a major non-NATO ally of the US. Doubts about such an assessment began only after Powell left her post in Pakistan’s well-planned 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 then monarch of backing them clandestinely against democratic forces in Nepal, whom King Gyanendra regarded as a bigger threat than the Maoists. UnlikeAmbassador Moriarty, who was forthright against the insurgents, there is no record of Nancy Powell adopting a similar no-nonsense approach to a group that saw armed struggle rather than the ballot box as the preferred means to power. Of course, it must be said that in the course of her career in the State Department, she has had the distinction of beingambassador to both Ghana as well as Uganda, and succeeded in improving ties between the US and these two important countries. However, her preferred region of interest has remained South Asia.

Although some within the strategic community in India have delusions of grandeur about the role played by Delhi in theObama calculus, the Powell appointment has once again shown up the differential treatment between approaches to 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 the honeyed language of which he is expert. Actual policy is left to Hillary Clinton, who regards the Europeans (and in particular the UK, and now France) as not merely experts on India, but as useful interlocutors. Although the expertise of the Secretary of State is most pronounced in the matter of specialty restaurants at the Maurya Sheraton hotel in Delhi (her favoured 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 US and the EU decides is proper for it, and forget about seeking parity with China. In that sense, the Powell appointment is welcome, for it 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 westernneighbour. However, she has much less reach within the Indian establishment, except at the formal level. Of course, given the obsession of the metropolitan elite in India with the US, she can be assured of an obsequious welcome, by journalists, businesspersons, officials and politicians, almost all of home have family in the US. 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 priosm of India-Pakistan relations. She 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 to the US intelligence community, and is a distinguished professor at the University of Miami, which has one of the best International Relations programs in the US.

While President Obama has been ruthless with BP in the matter of the Gulf of Mixico oil spill, in the case of India, he has been putting almost unbearable pressure on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to pass legislation that would insure US and other foreign companies from financial responsibility in case there is a nuclear accident. In other words, US lives have value, but Indian lives do not. Only because of the fact that the Government of India has a record of bowing to US (and EU) dictates has a Nuclear Liability Bill been passed that takes away 85% of the liability of a foreign supplier in case there is a mishap. This is not enough for Obama. He wants 99% of the liability to be transferred to the Indian taxpayer, something that even Manmohan Singh has balked at, despite his and Sonia Gandhi’s known desire to please any US administration, be it Republican or Democratic. Certainly, both will roll out the red carpet to the new US envoy, especially the UPA Chairperson, who Hillary Clinton regards as a policymaker who can be persuaded to accept the US view in most matters, and who has therefore been carefully cultivated by her.

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 US academic community have been trying for decades to accomplish. Certainly the US mission in Delhi has formidable PR skills, as well as contact with hundreds of decision -makers, including journalists and academics. Those who “follow the line” are made welcome, while those having an independent view are ignored. In the final year of his present term in office, President Obama’s most urgent priority is an orderly retreat from Afghanistan. Powell is among those who regard it possible to enlist the Pakistan army in such a mission, if only India were to make enough concessions. Her task in Delhi will 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, and on other strategic issues. However, even though the Manmohan-Sonia duo are eager to please not just Barack Obama but Hillary Clinton as well, their capacity to ensure concessions is limited by resistance from that segment of the strategic community in India that is not obsessed with finding jobs in US think tanks, but who believe that only the acceptance by the US that India is the “other tiger on the mountain” can ensure a genuine partnership between two countries sharing a common language and an exceptionally vibrant people. Although there will be the obligatory cheers of welcome for the Powell appointment, deeper than the headlines and the statements, there is resentment that President Obama has distanced himself from the longstanding US policy of sending distinguished Thought Leaders to India, rather than career diplomats such as Frank Wisner or Nancy Powell. The omens for a true alliance remain bleak, given Obama’s handover of India policy to his Secretary of State and her favourites.

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