Sunday, 16 November 2008

Obama or ‘Oh bummer’?

Barack Obama’s sweeping victory is undoubtedly the silver lining to our heavily overcast times but now that the euphoria is subsiding should we start looking a little more closely at the clouds? There’s no doubt that Obama heralds a new dawn but does he also bring back a few dark shadows we thought had been dispelled?

You can’t have failed to hear echoes of this question on television and the papers last week. Anxiety about whether Obama would ring the Prime Minister was the silly side of it. Concerns about outsourcing or H-1B visas was a hangover from the early part of his campaign. But there is a new and more potent worry that has given the doubts fresh life.

Is Obama poised to play an unwelcome interventionist role in Kashmir? And if the answer is a likely yes, will he put pressure on India to secure concessions for Pakistan? In an interview to Time magazine on October 23, Obama appears to suggest this might be the case.

Obama says he wants “to try to resolve … Kashmir … in a serious way”. He calls it “a critical task” and will “devote serious diplomatic resources to get a special envoy in there”. He also suggests Bill Clinton could be that envoy and reveals he’s sounded him out.

Now is this just loud thinking? I would say not. Obama is a careful self-controlled man. He’s unlikely to be indiscreet. Furthermore, the fact that he’s revealed he has spoken to Bill Clinton suggests the latter did not shoot down the idea. For all we know, he may even concur.

What could add to our apprehension is the possible context in which this proposal has materialised. Obama has repeatedly said that tackling Afghanistan and Al Qaeda will be his prime focus. He claims this is the core of international terrorism and believes it’s a task Bush took his eye off from. But to do so, he needs Pakistan’s co-operation and there are voices in Islamabad which argue it would be willing to co-operate if, in turn, America can create an environment permitting Pakistani troops to be deployed on the country’s eastern border (i.e. Kashmir) to move west (i.e. Afghanistan).

In fact, this thesis is at the heart of Ahmed Rashid and Barnett Rubin’s recent essay in Foreign Affairs which calls for a “a grand bargain”, a deal which includes an American role to resolve Kashmir but also to diminish India’s presence in Afghanistan. Rashid has recently been appointed to a team of advisors set up by General Petraeus.

So is this disconcerting? Possibly. But you could counter by referring to some very different things Obama has said about Pakistan. Early in his campaign, he said he was prepared to take direct action in Pakistan to fight Al Qaeda if Islamabad lacks the capacity to do so. Later, he spoke of Pakistan receiving American equipment and arms supposedly to fight terror but which were, in fact, deployed against India. Most recently, he said he would convince Islamabad that the real threat it faces is internal militancy and not India. Seen alongside these comments, his thoughts on Kashmir seem contradictory or, at least, not properly thought through.

But such apparently conflicting thoughts often lie at the bottom of many a politician’s thinking. It would not be unusual if that was also the case with Barack Obama. And it certainly doesn’t absolve us of the need to be cautious and gently yet firmly, talk him out of attempting to step in and resolve Kashmir.

The problem is just as we are eager he should desist, Pakistan is keen he must persist. An American role in resolving Kashmir is something Pakistan has always wanted and India has, similarly, always resisted. So Obama’s intentions could affect a triangle of relations: Delhi-Washington, Washington-Islamabad and Delhi-Islamabad.

The challenge is how do we divert Obama from such interventionist intentions? Remember, they could have a place at the heart of his self-declared mission to initiate change. Can we deflect his missionary zeal without damaging the good relationship we hope to have with him?

The time has come to think about this.

1 comment:

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