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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2704

FT itch –Obama-Singh Tango

By M. Rama Rao - Syndicate Features

It goes by the name `FT itch' -- the First Term Itch. Some people also call it the `fresh mint syndrome.' By whatever name it is called, it is a uniquely American phenomenon. There is no doubt. It afflicts the White House incumbents the most. No US president could escape it in recent years. Yes, the present Democrat resident is no exception. FT is pronounced during the first term. And disappears during the second term.

It is for the researchers and scholars to find out the ifs and buts of FT. A lay observation is that FT is in the very nature of things American. Every American President, whether Republican or Democrat brings to the White House a certain naivety. And romanticism too. As the most powerful chief executive, he (there is still no prospect of Madam President in the US) believes that he is on mission to make the world rid of its trouble spots.

The egg heads he has gathered during the campaign to mould and shape his world view tell him he has to chart out a new course, a course different from his predecessor. The Mr President accepts the advice. That marks the beginning of a four –year long First Term (FT) itch. It heralds trouble for the trouble spots as the torch bearer of American liberalism and conservatism in equal measure gropes for a magic wand and his interlocutors across the seven seas groan in despair.

You want concrete examples to appreciate what the FT is all about. Well take Kashmir where two nuclear south Asian neighbours are every ready for a battle. Bill Clinton and his worthy successor George Bush junior went through the FT motions. How could they escape it when it is inherent in the very scheme of things they inherit on the very first day in the White House.

Clinton loved India and every thing Indian from the Taj in Agra to the chicken curry in a local Taj restaurant in New York. Bush Jr had no such baggage. Yet, it has taken a Kargil to set right Clinton’s vision. A series of incidents (kidnapping and killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Karachi, double games of Musharraf tracked by CIA and NATO as also his selective crackdown on terrorist groups and above all the discovery that Pakistani nuclear scientists were in contact with Osama bin Laden) helped Bush to overcome his FT by the time his First Term ended.

Not convinced as yet. No problem. Here goes another example. The new popular American president, as Obama is hailed at home and abroad, said on the eve of the 2008 election that his ‘resolve is to work for the solution of the Kashmir issue’ since it holds ‘the key to better relations’ between India and Pakistan and for ‘peace in the region’. A year earlier, as Senator Obama, he wrote in the Foreign Affairs (July –August, 2007) ‘India and Pakistan needed to be encouraged to work towards resolving their dispute over Kashmir’. So, in a sense, his 2008 resolve on Kashmir and subsequent plan to appoint Bill Clinton as Special Envoy on Kashmir are part of FT itch – ‘my predecessors were all wrong. It is my divine destiny to rewrite history’.

Will Obama go his predecessors’ way in the end? To find an answer to this question one will have to wait for his second term, which begins, if the American electorate so desires, some time after 2013? Till then, his tryst with divine destiny will keep the hacks busy filling columns after columns every day and the seminar circuit humming with no dull moment whatsoever. Already, the Obama FT has begun to take affect. Both in his South Asia policy and Asia policy.

India’s naivety is contributing no less to spreading FT and making it more and more pronounced. The problem with India is it really believes what is all written in the Foreign Affairs issue after issue about India as the real IT power house, as the super power in the making and as the only economic power of consequence after China in these days of global meltdown. Delusions of grandeur have made India to gloss over the reality that it is country of functional anarchy. Result is a vision that places India on par with the First Country of the First World. Its demand on its eastern neighbour, Pakistan, after 26/11 – the terrorist mayhem in Mumbai that lasted close to three days – mirrors the mindset. ‘India expects Pakistan to take visible steps against 26/11 perpetrators’, S M Krishna, the Indian foreign minister keeps saying these days.

Shorn of diplomatic niceties, mumbo-jumbo, it means Pakistan handing over to India the likes of Hafeez Saeed, the chief of Jamaat-ud-Dawa for detention and trail in Indian version of Guantanamo. Why should President Zardari oblige Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the way President Musharraf pleased President Bush and he himself is bending backwards to impress the most popular President of a country in meltdown woes by hiring lobby firms for a price though Pakistan is on the doles from the Brettonwood twins. Well, such questions are beyond the scope of this article. Any how, there can be no one-liner in reply.

Neither Singh nor Zardari need to read ‘How to make friends and influence people’ written by Dale Carnegie six decades ago. At least where Kashmir is concerned. For the Indian leadership, Kashmir has always been a bilateral issue to be sorted out through discussions. For Zardari too this is the message from the military history of his country if he cares to read it just for once. As Mustafa Qadri brilliantly sums up in a recent article in the Guardian, strategic incompetence has been the hallmark of Pakistan army right from 1948 – the year Pakistan fought its first war with India- to 1999 the year of Kargil invasion. It was tactically brilliant but turned out to be strategically near suicidal as Nawaz Sharif never forgets to tell every one he meets.

Whether Zardari is the proverbial night watchman till Sharif makes a comeback with the help of his foes turned patrons in Washington and Rawalpindi is not germane to the discussion on bilateralism in the India-Pakistan context. Nor is the harsh reality that Pakistan army has been getting away despite its unaccountability in the war against terrorism in Waziristan. Nor are the rewards to Pakistan army by its foreign patrons with anti-submarine missiles and the like to drive away the Taliban who refuse to graduate beyond AK-47s and anti-aircraft guns.

In an interview to PTI, India’s premier news agency, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Robert Blake said the United States would consult India ‘very closely’ in the fight against extremism in South Asia. He however described Pakistan and Afghanistan as America’s ‘strategic priority’. Read with the Af-Pak policy, Robert Holbrooke mission and the not so subtle message from the Burns mission (Under Secretary of State William Burns), the Blake remarks highlight the intensity of FT itch on the White House. And revives the old question that has always haunted Washington under every President – Is the Secretary of State a glorified pointsman with no power whatsoever. Because Hillary Clinton may not be fully unaware of nuances of India-America –Pakistan diplomatic circuit under President Bill Clinton.

President Obama believes that Pakistan matters the most to the United States in Afghanistan. From this conviction emerges the concern that to keep Pakistan focused on terrorism on the Af-Pak belt, Kashmir issue has to be solved by pushing and prodding India. The Herald (of Pakistan) is obviously not a must read for him. At least the June 2009 issue of the Karachi monthly which carried a critique of ‘Rah-e-Rast’ the operation mounted by Gen Kayani’s army in Swat region. ‘By the time one reaches Peshawar, it is difficult to find people who believe that the army is fighting seriously…Although military officials claimed that Swat Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan chief Maulana Fazlullah’s base there had been destroyed, the headquarters were still standing and visible’, the Herald reported. But FT itch comes in the way for Washington to read The Herald or even the satellite imagery of North of Pakistan.

In a limited sense, that is indeed the broader sense, President Obama needs China, which needs Pakistan to keep India under continuous check. Washington’s dependence on Beijing has grown after the melt down of American economy. It suits China like never before what with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s team putting India’s act together with no crutches at home to impede the act.

Both President Obama and his interlocutors in the Chinese capital may not be unaware of the difference between Zardari’s Pakistan and Manmohan Singh’s India. Pakistan media is accustomed to toe the official line dictated from the Rawalpindi perch by the all powerful army, which has devised so many instruments to carry forward its state policy, ISI being one of them. Indian media, on the other hand, is an adversary in live action to the regime on Raisina Hill. And the party or parties in power know they are accountable to the electorate every five years.

It is this awareness that makes Delhi to react differently from Islamabad to the pulls and pressures from Washington. For Pakistan, every wish from the US is a diktat that has to be met at least half-way to keep the flow of doles into the State treasury. For India, every remark from the Washington opens up an old wound, makes it put on the thinking cap and slip into a strategy session to come up with a nuanced response not as a half-way measure to please some one in the land of El Dorado but not to appear as uncivilized and to appear to care for domestic opinion. Has the time come for Delhi to call a spade a spade bluntly and brusquely tell the all knowing that it knows what to talk with whom and when. Hillary Clinton’s visit holds the key to the answer.

- Asian Tribune -

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