Analysis: Obama’s South Asia policy —Najmuddin A Shaikh
What Obama said with regard to acting unilaterally if there was actionable intelligence about the location of Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan’s tribal areas was really no more than what the Bush administration has been doing
First things first. It is clear that for Barack Obama, having been raised as a Muslim, having a Muslim middle name or having attended a Muslim school in Indonesia will not mean automatic sympathy for Muslim causes on religious grounds. In fact, the deliberately created controversy about Obama’s Muslim heritage has put him on the defensive and has caused him to stress — perhaps more than would otherwise have been the case — the depth of his Christian beliefs, and perhaps caused the prolongation of the crisis created by the intemperate remarks of his pastor Jeremiah Wright.
Some commentators have even taken delight in pointing out that in most Muslim countries, Obama would be termed an apostate and as such subject to a death sentence. Not exactly a recipe for eliciting sympathy.
While he has the strength of character to pursue policies he believes to be right despite allegations that they are influenced by his background, it is only natural that he will be careful in articulating and implementing policies that could invite such criticism overt or covert, particularly at a time when despite efforts, Islamophobia remains an important element in the American polity.
What one can expect, however, is that Obama will be less averse — as the candidate for change — to recognising that extremism in the Muslim world flows from causes other than religious injunctions, no matter how this may be portrayed by so-called spokesmen for Islam or misguided scholars in the West. He certainly will not be talking about crusades nor will he oppose direct talks with adversaries.
He underlined his wish to engage adversaries in a recent speech on Latin America, saying that, “After eight years of the disastrous policies of George Bush, it is time to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions.”
This will influence his view of the role Hamas should play in the Palestine talks though even on this score, some Republicans have taken cheap shots at him for having received an endorsement from a Hamas leader. The joker in that particular pack is of course Israel. Like every candidate, Obama has been vocal in expressing his support for Israel and may well back away from any contact with Hamas if Israel objects as it is bound to do.
Obama may be a candidate for change. He may shift troops out of Iraq in the hope that this will force the Iraqis to work out political compromises. But he will be as strong on fighting terrorism as Bush has been. And that is the overriding foreign policy priority that determines the US-Pakistan relationship. He too will maintain that he is seeking a long-term relationship with the people of Pakistan; one that will be driven by the concern that a relationship with the US may keep a nuclear-armed Pakistan from going down the extremist path. In that sense there will be little difference between Bush and Obama.
What may change however are the instruments that Obama selects to meet his objectives. He will pay more than lip service to the counterterrorism doctrine enunciated by the Bush administration, which calls for 65 percent of the counter terrorism effort to be political and economic, 20 percent to be alliance building and only 15 percent to be military. He will unequivocally endorse the proposal of Democrat Senator Joseph Biden to triple economic assistance to Pakistan and will probably to the extent possible shift the emphasis in military assistance to Pakistan even further away from big-ticket items to those that are specific to counterterrorism. He will support talks with the Taliban by Afghan President Hamid Karzai; and with the Pakistani Taliban by the provincial and federal governments.
On the expulsion of foreigners and on hunting down Al Qaeda, there will not be an iota of difference between Obama’s position and that of the present administration. What he said with regard to acting unilaterally if there was actionable intelligence about the location of Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan’s tribal areas was really no more than what the Bush administration has been doing.
Like Bush, Obama may, in deference to the sensitivities of the civilian Pakistan government — a government that he would like to help — refrain from public statements. While this is not certain, he may suggest that a democratic government in Pakistan would be better off, in terms of credibility, if it publicly acknowledged that it lacked the wherewithal to be able to act against Al Qaeda in certain locations and that it had entered into agreements to allow better equipped friends to do so.
The other major change — dependent on how events unfold in Pakistan over the next few months — will be reduced focus on the president and the army as American allies in Pakistan. A more extensive effort to develop people-to-people relations will be attempted and the present embassy efforts to develop ties with politicians and civil society will be carried further. Again this will not be a major change from what the Bush administration appears to be doing now, but it will be helped by the fact that the Bush-Musharraf equation will no longer be a factor.
Obama has spoken of wanting to work for a better and more tension free relationship between India and Pakistan. It is significant that he has done so not in the context of South Asia being a nuclear flashpoint, but in the context of a better relationship with India easing Pakistan’s need for retaining the Taliban option. In other words, it is again the Afghan and terrorist connections that colour Obama’s perception of Indo-Pak relations.
One of the big questions is going to be whether the current perception of the US in Pakistan will change after Obama comes to power. The big upswing in America’s approval rating when American helicopters were ferrying supplies to earthquake victims does not provide an appropriate analogy, but I have a feeling that the very fact of a Black man becoming president of the United States will create an even more positive image for America than the post-earthquake acts of compassion. One can only hope that sympathy for the underdog who made it to the top is not diluted by the perception that he is an elitist rather than a man of the underprivileged.
Who will be Obama’s Secretary of State? Among his foreign policy advisers are Zbigniew Brzezinski, former President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, and Anthony Lake, who served in the same capacity in the Clinton administration. We also have confirmed “liberals” like Joseph Cirincione and Lawrence Korb. The former is better known in Pakistan as a strong non-proliferation proponent but he was also one of the people who argued that Saddam Hussein had been contained and military action against him was unnecessary.
It would perhaps be possible to conjecture that Lake could be a candidate for the Secretary of State post. He was Clinton’s national security adviser when Prime Minister Bhutto was able to secure some compensation for the undelivered F-16s, but beyond that he too was of the large number of American officials who were in a constant state of worry about Pakistan. Not much more can be said about what sort of influence he would exercise on policy towards South Asia.
Richard Clark, a counterterrorism expert, will probably have some position in an Obama administration and his view of what needs to be done in the tribal areas is not very far from the policies currently being followed.
The writer is a former foreign secretary