Obama hopes Modi will join war against ISIS (Sunday Guardian)
MADHAV NALAPAT New York | 27th Sep 2014
U.S. President Barack Obama
ince September 2013, when it was becoming clearer that the next Prime Minister of India would be Narendra Damodardas Modi, a pragmatic President Barack Obama quietly set in place a reset of the approach of his administration towards Modi. The red carpet earlier proffered for the diverse groups who sought Modi's arraignment on human rights charges got replaced with a separation barrier, while a reluctant Nancy Powell was nudged into making the trek to Gandhinagar to pay courtesies to the new star on the political horizon of the country President Obama wishes to see as standing alongside Japan as the most trusted ally in Asia of the US. When the election results got declared, and before President Pranab Mukherjee had asked Modi to assume office as Prime Minister of India, President Obama gave him a congratulatory call. Officials on both sides say that the conversation was an ice-breaker, melting away a decade of distrust and dislike between successive US administrations and Modi. While he had earlier posted a fan of the Pakistan army, Nancy Powell, as envoy to India, this time around Obama has chosen an Indian-American (Richard Rahul Verma), who has worked informally for better India-US ties for three decades and counts his friends in India in the dozens.
While India's ambassador to the US, S. Jaishankar, is known and trusted in Washington, some of the officials who have come from Delhi to make preparations for the Modi visit were underwhelming, sticking to "the same whining litany of Indian officialdom's complaints about their US counterparts". Rather than merely put together a basket of MoUs, which is what Indian officials appear to their US counterparts to be focused on, President Obama wants Prime Minister Modi to initiate a "close and comprehensive partnership that can shape global geopolitics in the 21st century". In contrast, Indian officials (and, it must be said, most of their US counterparts) focused on "deliverables", which in essence was the same wish list that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh brought with him to Washington in 2005, or nine years ago. That so little has changed in what officials on both sides bring up with each other indicates the stasis in a relationship that has constantly been bedevilled by detail. However, US officials say that President Obama sees in Prime Minister Modi a leader "with the will and political heft to leapfrog over the status quo approach of his officials and initiate a new beginning that matches the needs of the 21st century".
Interestingly, ISIS is becoming a touchstone for India-US ties. Officials from India have thus far balked from agreeing to suggestions from influential individuals in Washington that New Delhi commit military assets to the ongoing battle against the terror group. Indeed, some officials from India have informally asked their US counterparts to "make it clear that the US does not expect India's participation in the war against ISIS", when in fact such a move would be welcomed across significant sections of the strategic community.
Given the excellent relations between Delhi and the two capitals most affected by ISIS, Baghdad and Damascus, India could be the bridge linking the regime in Syria as well as possibly Iran to the battle being waged under US leadership against the terror group. Within the Obama administration, there are an increasing number of voices calling for the US to enlist Damascus and Tehran in its latest war. What seems possible is that a Second Front will get formed against ISIS, that would pit Syria, Iran and Russia against ISIS. Such a front has become inevitable in view of the political incapacity of the Obama administration to enlist the assistance of Syria and Iran in fighting ISIS, despite the essentiality of both these countries in what will be a vicious war. Should India coordinate its actions with both camps, New Delhi would play a key bridge-building role in forming a global coalition against ISIS. Prime Minister Modi has the vision to go in for such a move, despite opposition from officials who favour the traditional Indian position of "lofty talk and no action". Should Prime Minister Modi use his diplomatic skills in reaching out to both the GCC as well as Syria and Iran, as well as to Moscow and Washington, India could become the prime mover in such a coalition, thereby becoming key to the solution to a problem that has emerged as a threat to stability in the GCC, the region hosting millions of Indian workers and from where the country sources the bulk of its petroproduct needs.
Although they were initially complicit in the funding, training and arming of thousands of the extremists now fighting on the same side as ISIS, the GCC states have increasingly accepted the view that the terror group can threaten the stability that this group of super-rich Arab states has enjoyed despite the shocks of the "Arab Spring". If he were to overrule his officials and (after consulting with authorities in Baghdad and Damascus) order the Indian Air Force and Navy to participate in the military operations against ISIS, Prime Minister Modi would catapult India into centre stage in a manner not seen since the early 1950s. Also, joining in the war would give the Indian military substantial on-the-job training in counter-terror operations in distant locations, besides boosting inter-operability with friendly countries such as the US. It would make Prime Minister Modi a global player, impossible to ignore when global issues are getting discussed. In Washington as well as in New York, both the US administration as well as US business see in the Prime Minister an individual willing to challenge the status quo and end the procrastination and timidity which has characterised India's policy since the time when Indira Gandhi was murdered in 1984, the very year which marked the close of single-party majorities till Prime Minister Modi led his party to victory in May. Joining the war against ISIS can become the issue that bonds the world's two biggest democracies together for the first time, while not sacrificing New Delhi's independent view of the best way of tackling terror threats, many of which have come up because of faulty policies decided in Washington and allied capitals.