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The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones

Obama And The Balance Of Expectations

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On November 6, US President Barack Obama will pay a tribute to the victims of 26/11 from the heritage wing of the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai—the place where massive destruction and bloodshed took place for the longest duration during the siege in Mumbai in end-November 2008. That’s where his trip begins and that is where we will know what he feels about the fact that almost two years down the line there has been no effective progress on bringing the perpetrators of that massacre to justice.

Then again it is naïve to expect the U.S. to help us in bringing Pakistan to book when the United States is itself incessantly-struggling in trying to make Pakistan follow a completely dollar-funded War on Terror. The contrast of the Pakistan, United States, and India triumvirate can be seen in the light of the spring 2010 Pew Global Attitudes survey released in July end for Pakistan and late October for India.

Looking at the survey and the recent congressional polls in the U.S., Obama may now have the distinction of being more popular in India than he is in his own country. The numbers also say that the US has a positive image in India. The good news for India is that its citizens are upbeat about their economy and have confidence in their leadership. Incredibly, “more than eight-in-ten (83%) say the U.S. takes the interests of countries like India into account when it makes foreign policy decisions—the highest percentage among the 21 nations surveyed outside the U.S.” I am with the minority and open to consider my views again after President Obama leaves.

Right next door in Pakistan America’s overall image remains negative despite the fact that it is spending $7.5 billion in civilian aid. And just two weeks or so before Obama’s India visit the United States approved a further $2 billion military package to Pakistan. Irrefutable proof that money can’t buy you love.

While President Obama is hugely popular in India he is extremely unpopular in Pakistan—only 8 per cent of Pakistanis express confidence that he will do the right thing in world affairs, his lowest rating among the 22 nations surveyed.

“The Pakistan Army, which is surely the most powerful mercenary force in history, simply sends a bill and Washington brings out the cheque book. Obama explained why: it’s known as ‘helping Pakistan in helping us in Afghanistan,’” wrote the editorial director of India Today MJ Akbar.

This isn’t an entirely new thing as it began when Zia-ul-Haq started milking Washington for all he could when the Afghan jihad began. “He turned down Jimmy Carter’s initial offer of $400 million in aid, dismissing it as ‘peanuts,’ and was rewarded with a $3.2 billion proposal from the Reagan administration plus permission to buy F-16 fighter jets, previously available only to NATO allies and Japan.” (1)

The scale of skimming by the ISI officers was baffling. “In Quetta in 1983, ISI officers were caught colluding with Afghan rebels to profit by selling off CIA-supplied weapons. In another instance, the Pakistan army quietly sold the CIA its own surplus .303 rifles and about 300 million bullets. A ship registered in Singapore picked up about 100,000 guns in Karachi, steamed out to sea, turned around, came back to port, and off-loaded the guns, pretending they had come from abroad. The scheme was discovered—the bullets were still marked ‘POF,’ for ‘Pakistan Ordinance Factory.’ ISI had to pay to scrub the Pakistani bullets of their markings, so if they were used in Afghanistan and picked up by the Soviets, they couldn’t be exploited by the communists as evidence of Pakistani support for the mujahedin.” (2)

Any doubts that money is now being used for its intended purpose were cleared by a New York Times story roughly a year before the Mumbai attacks. The NYT had reported that US aid for the War on Terror had been diverted by Pakistan to shore up its capabilities against India.

Terrorism and the complexities of dealing with the ever-dangerous and deteriorating situation in Pakistan would expectedly be at the heart of discussions between Obama and the Indian leadership but whether there would be some tectonic change in the equation remains to be seen. The main aim of the Obama visit will remain economic as he faces harsher realities back home. Obama is coming with 200 CEOs of American firms and he hopes to encourage business deals to reinvigorate the US economy and thereby also improve his re-election chances for 2012.

As far as the expectations of India are concerned the early signs are not too encouraging as there hasn’t been a clear positive sign either on India’s bid for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council or on dual technology transfer. There have also been American concerns over outsourcing. Surely the Obama contingent must have thought about the fact that the visit is not all about what America wants.

According to another NYT story, “corporate America mainly hopes the visit by the president can help better define the common economic interests of the United States and India and build on the trade and investment foundations the business community has already laid.

Harold McGraw 3rd, the chairman of McGraw Hill and one of the executives in the Obama entourage, said the visit was ‘all about economic and job growth for both the U.S. and India.’ India is America’s 14th-largest trade partner, he noted, but ‘should be a lot higher.’”

Obama comes to India as a well-regarded leader of a country that is well-liked, going by the Pew survey, and between his increasingly-growing home concerns and what he can take from India he must also ensure that what he leaves behind, at the very least, keeps that popularity in place.

Sources: For 1 and 2 from the writings of Steve Coll. Others New York Times and Pew Research Center.

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