Kerry, Hagel and the Indians

Some of the key assumptions on which India's regional strategies were predicated for the past decade are being called into question. Source: AP

Some of the key assumptions on which India's regional strategies were predicated for the past decade are being called into question. Source: AP

Gnawing doubts arise as to what Kerry and Hagel signify for the spirit of our times and indeed for India’s interests.

China, Russia, Iran, Israel, Turkey, the Philippines – the list of countries is freely extendable, which are carefully weighing the significance of President Barack Obama’s cabinet appointments of John Kerry and Chuck Hagel as the secretaries of state and defence. These are extraordinary times. The American economy is in distress; world situation is turbulent and dangerous; locus of world power is shifting; and the US’ capacity to “lead” is in difficulty. A long sunset has begun.

From all accounts, the Indian pundits are getting a sinking feeling, too. Some of the key assumptions on which the country’s regional strategies were predicated for the past decade are being called into question. Gnawing doubts arise as to what Kerry and Hagel signify for the spirit of our times and indeed for India’s interests. The heart of the matter is that these powerful statesmen broadly share a worldview that discounts the real worth of military force for the advancement of the US’s global reach and influence. 

To be sure, Kerry and Hagel have brought into the discourse a refreshing sense of realism. In a manner of speaking, they are doing a favor to the Indians by making them realize a few home truths themselves. No doubt, India’s internal problems are mounting and there is great urgency to reset the national priorities. The accumulated systemic failures are impeding even the modernization of India’s armed forces. Most certainly India too needs a re-prioritization of national policies, akin to what Obama has vowed in his own way for the direction of the US’s economic recovery and social regeneration. Besides, more than priorities, this is also a matter of self-awareness of the limitations of power in the contemporary world situation. Some most inspiring views and tenets have been attributed to Hagel and Kerry about the efficacy of solving regional issues through military force, and, more important, on the preference to ‘engage’ adversaries in a calm and rational manner.

Meanwhile, Hagel just walked into a storm in an Indian tea cup – rather, dragged into it – over a previously unreleased 2011 speech that he made at Oklahoma’s Cameron University, which has been brought to light by a US website with pronounced right wing leanings just as his appointment as defence secretary was about to be confirmed by the US Senate. Hagel apparently said, inter alia, in a wide-ranging speech:

“India for some time has always used Afghanistan as a second front, and India has over the years financed problems for Pakistan on that side of the border. And you can carry that into many dimensions, the point being [that] the tense, fragmented relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been there for many, many years.”

The Indian pundits are hopping mad. But then, this is not the first time that such a thing has been openly said. Way back in September 2009, then American (and NATO) commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal made an assessment for the then secretary of defence Rbert Gates that “increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures in Afghanistan or India.”

The general wrote in his report: “Indian political and economic influence is increasing in Afghanistan, including significant development efforts and financial investment. In addition, the current Afghan government is perceived by Islamabad to be pro-Indian.” Suffice to say, the US policies always factored in that while India’s economic assistance to Afghan reconstruction is welcome, its political or security role needs to be circumscribed so as not to ruffle the sensitivities of Pakistan, which Washington consistently regarded as its key ally in the war. The American officials are au fait with the decades-old Indian mantra of a ‘second front’ vis-à-vis Pakistan, but in the prevailing circumstances of western military presence in the Hindu Kush credited the Indian policymakers with the discerning capacity not to stray into gray areas. (Would anyone believe that India’s all-out support of Dr. Najibullah was out of enthusiasm for an unvarnished communist in its neighborhood?) 

However, there was never any misconception in the American mind that India can ever be a match for Pakistan on the Afghan chessboard – a pawn at best, but not a rook by any reckoning. Again, Washington conceived certain selective use for India in Afghanistan, but there was never any doubt about Pakistan’s centrality. Equally, the US recognizes that Pakistan has legitimate interests in Afghanistan, which relate to its national sovereignty and territorial integrity and its security and social stability. Even with regard to radical Islam, India and the US have had divergent opinions – and contrarian experiences – and Washington will never allow itself to be swayed by the Indian prejudices regarding the Taliban. 

Hagel’s 2011 speech touched a raw nerve when India faces isolation once again in Afghanistan, but there was nothing stunningly new in it. However, the ‘course correction’ of great interest to Indian interests that Kerry and Hagel might have signaled relates to America’s ‘rebalancing’ in Asia. In the course of his Senate hearing, Kerry voiced support for the rebalancing policy, but added a caveat that he isn’t convinced that increasing the US’ military influence is critical yet, and pointing out that the US already has more bases in the region than any other nation. He also took note that Beijing is concerned about the increased number of US marines based in Australia. Kerry said:

“The Chinese ask what the United States is doing. ‘They try to encircle us, what’s going on’ – and so every action has its reaction. We have to think thoughtfully about not creating a threat when there isn’t one and understand where we can find bases for cooperation. I am not talking about retreating, I am simply trying to think about how we do this, not creating the reaction you don’t like to create.” 

Why should these thoughtful views bring down the Indian roof? Quite obviously, one key objective Obama had in mind in zeroing in on Hagel is the critical need to trim the US’s defence spending and the president’s firm conviction that this Vietnam veteran with a Purple Heart is just the brave man to take the bull by the horns at the Pentagon, given the entrenched interest groups in the US military-industrial complex. Put differently, it was never quite realistic for the Indian pundits to imagine that the US is wedded to a cold-war style containment strategy toward China or that India would have a key role to play as the US’s partner in the vast ‘Indo-Pacific’ region stretching from the Strait of Hormuz to Vanuatu, which we have unilaterally decided is our ‘sphere of influence’. Maybe, Hagel and Kerry disappoint us. But then, the fault doesn’t lie with Hagel or Kerry, but with the lotus-eaters amongst us who chose to be indolently forgetful and were drugged by the fruit of the ‘unipolar predicament’.

How does it all add up? What is there in it for India in the Obama-era US strategies? Actually, there is a lot. Only last week, the government-owned China Daily newspaper wrote that the US policies may create “friction” in Sino-American ties, but Washington “needs” cooperation – “The US needs cooperation with China, and vice versa, as cooperation helps promote the economic interests of both countries… The huge Chinese market potential will undoubtedly serve as an anchor for bilateral trade. If US exports to China grow by 12 percent annually over the next four years, a total of 143,000 jobs could be created in the US.” 

India should take note that China is well on the way to figure out its logarithm after tabling the entries of exactly what is on the mind of Kerry and Hagel – and Obama. 

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