Another Obama Foreign Policy Failure... Or Is It?

During the campaign, Barack Obama maintained that he would focus on intervening between Pakistan and India over their disputed Kashmir region. Obama repeatedly claimed that settling the Kashmir question was a “critical task” for the next administration and floated a lot of conjecture about how his administration would step in to solve the situation. But, despite all the claims that Obama made about how important Kashmir was to his developing India/Pakistan policy, the Obama administration has just trimmed any focus on Kashmir from envoy Richard C. Holbrooke’s responsibilities.

India is ecstatic over this move and has claimed a diplomatic victory over the Obama administration on the matter. No word yet from the Pakistanis over this loss of focus on a pet issue that they felt Obama had promised to help them with.

This is a turn around by Obama and a failure to live up to his campaign rhetoric. By trimming Kashmir from Holbrooke’s duties, Obama is casting aside one of the few specific foreign policy aims he claimed was so important during the campaign.

During the campaign, Obama floated ideas that Bill Clinton could be an envoy to settle the dispute and made vague promises to Pakistan that he’d step in and settle the dispute for them. He seems not to have bothered talking about any of these grand plans with India, however, causing the Indian government to hotly deny that they have any interest in allowing the US to become a mediator in the troubled region. India pointed out that the “assistance” Obama kept talking about to everyone but India was not wanted.

In all, Obama made a pretty good mash of his initial foreign policy outreach to both Pakistan and India because of his ham-handed and unsubstantiated claims about Kashmir as well as several smaller mistakes. In his first week after the election, for instance, Obama called Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari but neglected to call India’s Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh at all. Obama also appointed a woman to his transition cabinet that Pakistan was suspicious of having ties to a radical Hindu Nationalist group.

India was suspicious that Obama planned to offer any manner of deals with Pakistan to get its help with the war on terror and was fearful that India’s interests would be hurt as a result. And, during the campaign with his lack of attention to India’s needs and his corresponding attention to Pakistan’s, their fears could not be easily dismissed.

Still, with this quiet trimming of Kashmir from Holbrooke’s focus, India is reveling in “public glee… over their country’s latest diplomatic success” against Obama’s announced policy aims. Clearly Obama has lost this round.

But, is this really a foreign policy loss? Strictly speaking, it is. Obama claimed that Kashmir would be an important focus of his policy for India and Pakistan and at his first opportunity to act on that policy he’s set it to the back burner. In that view, this is a failure of the policy he repeatedly laid out during the campaign.

However, it is not really a “loss” per se because our stronger and more proper ally between India and Pakistan is India. And, since India is pleased with this outcome, we have reassured an ally from a great and developing democracy, ties that were becoming frayed with Obama’s early mistakes. We can only hope that Obama’s initial bungling smoothes out and that this is the first step to a better policy in the region.

Unfortunately, even as this move to have Kashmir deleted from Holbrooke’s portfolio has occurred, we must still assume that Obama thinks he can reintroduce this issue at a later date. If reality keeps mugging the Obama India/Pakistan policy like it has thus far, however, he might finally come to realize that repeating the Bush administration tact of staying clear of Kashmir is the right move.