TWQ: How Obama Can Get South Asia Right - Spring 2009
April 1, 2009
One of the major contributions of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign during 2007—08 was his political success in shifting the focus of the U.S. foreign policy debate away from Iraq and toward Afghanistan. The reversal of fortunes in the two major wars that President George W. Bush had embarked upon during his tenure (a steady improvement in the military situation in Iraq during the last two years of the Bush administration and the rapidly deteriorating one in Afghanistan) helped Obama to effectively navigate the foreign policy doldrums that normally sink the campaigns of Democratic candidates in U.S. presidential elections. Throughout his campaign, Obama insisted that the war on terror that began in Afghanistan must also end there. He attacked Bush for taking his eyes off the United States’ ‘‘war of necessity,’’ embarking on a disastrous ‘‘war of choice’’ in Iraq, and promised to devote the U.S. military and diplomatic energies to a region that now threatened U.S. interests and lives: the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The foreign policy debate between Obama and his Republican rival Senator John McCain often focused on their differences in how to deal with the situation in Afghanistan and what kind of pressures must be brought to bear upon Pakistan. Obama talked of bombing the al Qaeda bases in Pakistan if there was actionable intelligence that Islamabad refused to act on. McCain underlined the need for a sophisticated handling of Islamabad, the most critical ally in winning the war on terror in Afghanistan. The public sparring on whether to bomb Pakistan or not, however, masked a far more significant framework that Obama was developing for the entire South Asian subcontinent. Put simply, Obama was calling for an integrated approach toward the region as a whole, taking into account the complex intraregional dynamics in addressing the mounting security challenges to the United States from the faltering war in Afghanistan. In other words, Obama’s promised South Asian approach marks a major departure from the Bush administration’s seemingly successful dehyphenation of U.S. policy toward India and Pakistan.
Obama’s promised new framework for South Asia, however, has several negative consequences for the region in general and U.S. policy in particular. What sort of strategic and diplomatic framework can be developed that will not only bring about an integrated approach to the region but also harmonize Indian and U.S. interests?