US diplomacy runs aground in South Asia

When Professor Paul Kennedy predicted the inexorable decline of America as world power in his masterly work of the 1980s, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, there were hardly any takers. But today even ‘Friends of America’ like Edward Luce, Washington columnist and commentator for The Financial Times, would acknowledge it to be an inexorable historical happening.

But is America’s decline as the lord and master of public diplomacy also on the decline? As power declines, need is all the more to sustain glory image-building. Without doubt, US public diplomacy surged when visiting Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman announced in New Delhi on Monday that America has put a 10-million dollar bounty on the fearsome Pakistani Islamist leader Hafiz Saeed whom India regards as the mastermind behind the terrorist attacks on Mumbai in 2008.

The Indian pundits rose to applaud Washington’s decision as signifying a genuine shift in Washington in favor of jettisoning its double standards on international terrorism. Calibrated media leaks by Washington establishment figures fuelled the Indian euphoria. Unsurprisingly, some Indian pundits even forecast that the US intended to eliminate Saeed in a drone attack. 

However, after having extracted maximum mileage in the Delhi media, Washington now clarifies that the 10-million dollar bounty is not for physically eliminating Saeed or for locating him – he lives openly in Pakistan – but for collecting evidence that might incriminate him as a terrorist so that Saeed can be tried in a US court of law.

This is turning bizarre. Senior ministers in the Indian government, and the main opposition party BJP would sense that they have been taken for a ride by the US publicity stunt. The Americans have been clever by half by attempting to sour the climate of the forthcoming meeting on Sunday between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari in New Delhi, and thereafter backtracking to attend to the ruffled Pakistani feathers.  

I am at a loss to figure out who is at fault – Indians or the Americans. After all, the Indians were not under compulsion to behave like zombies without checking out the American game plan. America’s real problem with Saeed is that he is spearheading the public opposition within Pakistan to the reopening of the transit routes through that country for the US and NATO supplies to Afghanistan. The Pentagon is exasperated that Pakistan is in no hurry to reopen the routes. So, this US charade is all about taming Saeed.

But will he cooperate? There are no signs of it yet. Saeed is calling the US bluff. It seems for the moment that America’s mastery over public diplomacy may also be on the decline.

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