Obama’s New Cabinet and India

Photo courtesy the Tea Party Tribune

Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor of usindiamonitor.

Barack Obama is only the 17th human being in history to be re-elected President of the United States.   In most second terms, some cabinet members resign and new ones are hired or shuffled around in a predictable beltway equivalent of musical chairs.  2013 is no exception.  Prominent administration officials such as Hillary Clinton and Timothy Geithner are out.  Obama has recently announced four new replacement appointments that will have a major impact on US foreign policy in general, and on India in particular: John Kerry for Secretary of State, Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, Jack Lew for Secretary of the Treasury, and John Brennan for CIA Director.  

How should Indians view these men, all of whom will spend many hours thinking about India, send dozens of staffers to India on their behalf, host numerous Indian officials in Washington and New York, and probably take multiple trips back and forth to India themselves?  India is certainly a partner but the quality of the partnership over the next few years hinges largely on these four.

Any assessment should be made with Obama’s “pivot” toward Asia in mind as an overarching foreign policy North Star.  As important is the ongoing boom in bilateral trade between the United States and India under the administrations of Obama and Manmohan Singh.  America is also becoming a war-weary nation about to limp home from Afghanistan and unlikely to rush unilaterally into another theater of conflict again.  We expect all four appointees to support these trends further over the next few years.  It’s also worth looking at their past for clues.

John Kerry as Secretary of State.   Word in Washington is that Kerry has coveted this position for years, nearly as much as the presidency itself.  He certainly has the qualifications, and should have no problem getting confirmed.  Kerry has used his multi-decade perch in the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee to globe-trot and hobnob on behalf of the American people.  This multilingual Vietnam War veteran is no stranger to South Asia.  He possesses a particular expertise on Pakistan and cordially functional relationships with Pakistan’s top brass, which are extremely rare in American and even Western circles.  He has been a leading advocate for aid to Pakistan.

That is precisely what worries some Indians.  Kerry’s support of Pakistan is viewed as harmful to Indian interests, especially when there is evidence that US aid for Pakistan’s civilian development or to fight terrorism is being funneled to shore up strategic capability against India and strategic depth in Afghanistan.

On the other hand, Kerry’s record on India taken in isolation is mostly solid.  He has visited India numerous times for diplomatic and business missions since the 1990’s.  He agrees with Obama in supporting India’s bid for a permanent seat on the UN National Security Council.  During the confirmation hearing for Ambassador Nancy Powell, Kerry said “there are few relationships that will be as vital in the 21st century as our growing ties with India and its people.”   But Kerry has also in the past criticized the outsourcing of jobs to India and India’s nuclear weapons program.   In recent times he has either softened or quietly changed his stance on both.  In 2008, he supported the US-India nuclear agreement and even helped galvanize Indian leadership behind it.

Meanwhile, the American bid to keep ties intact with India and Pakistan simultaneously is both challenging and necessary, as I’ve written in Foreign Policy Digest.  It is not only Obama’s prerogative, but America’s bipartisan reality at this time.  It makes sense that Kerry will fall into line and not choose sides in Indo-Pak relations regardless of his past.  Kerry is also the type to favor diplomatic solutions over the threats and use of force, a policy that India claims to favor in its American partners.  But Kerry has big shoes to fill, and ongoing tensions over Iran-India ties to deal with.

Chuck Hagel, Secretary of Defense.  The Pentagon is less and less about the use of military power and technology.  Even where America is actively at war, such as in Afghanistan, the soldiers are more involved in politics, diplomacy, training, and local law enforcement than at perhaps any time in US history.  The nature and currency of force projection have changed.  These are the pillars of the new counterinsurgency strategy, because solutions to winning asymmetrical warfare are now seen as political in nature by American generals, politicians, and academics.  This was the lesson learned in Iraq as well.  Outside of presently unfathomable direct engagements against the governments of Russia or the EU, any new conflicts against foreign actors are going to be asymmetrical in nature.  In this environment, former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel makes a lot of sense as the next Secretary of Defense.  Like Kerry, he is a decorated Vietnam vet and sat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  His statements indicate he is not a hawk.  Critics say he is “haunted by Vietnam.”  That’s a good thing; we all should be.

Hagel’s confirmation will be more uncomfortable due to his criticism of gays that enraged the left, and criticisms of the Iraq invasion and Israeli policy that infuriated the right.  Neocons think he is squeamish about invading Iran.  However, we expect he will ultimately get the nod after a bit of squirming.  He is not in practicality anti-gay or anti-Israel despite the hoopla, nor would he refuse a Commander-in-Chief’s hypothetical demand to initiate conflict with Iran.

Hagel’s record on India is murkier than Kerry’s.  In 2008 he voted yea for the US-India nuclear agreement like Kerry (and unlike Senator Obama), as close to a litmus test as we have for American politicians’ support for India.  We aren’t clear on whether he has been to India or not yet, but we expect he certainly will visit at some point after being confirmed as Secretary.  Feel free to comment below if you know more about this.

The US-India bilateral relationship has a raft of security issues on the table, including unprecedented joint military exercise plans, tough decisions on Afghanistan, Iran, China and Pakistan, weapons sales from US manufacturers, and intelligence sharing related to terrorism.  America wants involvement on the Kashmir dispute but Obama and his predecessors have never figured out how to tackle this demon, while the man tasked with trying, Richard Holbrooke is no more.  Unlike commerce, defense issues are reactionary in nature and do not follow a clear path.  Security poses as many challenges as successes.  We will quickly find out how well Hagel and his counterparts navigate these choppy waters soon.

Jack Lew, Secretary of Treasury.  Lew is moving to Treasury from the White House Chief of Staff position and arriving at a time of great difficulty for the US government’s finances and the overall economy.  Unemployment remains high, markets and real estate prices are sluggish, and the national debt is unacceptably high.  There is a real threat of government shutdown on the horizon.

Many do not know that Treasury has a South Asia & Southeast Asia bureau under the International Affairs Office, which prove’s the region’s relative importance to the US economy.  This is loosely in line with other federal agencies’ structures including State and Defense.  One of my greatest criticisms of US foreign policy machinery would be the lack of coordination and standardization between these bureaus, but that’s another story for another day.

Lew is considered a reliably liberal, detail-oriented technocrat who wields immense power in the White House and a deep background in foreign affairs through his work at State and participation at the Council on Foreign Relations.  During the years that Lew worked at Citibank, the company invested heavily in India.  Lew has traveled extensively including through India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan in his official capacities.

Some observers hope that Lew will revive languishing efforts to create free trade agreements and promote trade better than Geithner did.  It’s certainly possible.  Having a foreign policy wonk at Treasury is a fine idea.  Obama’s economic team over his first term has been considered underwhelming by the American public, and rightly so.  Hopefully Jack Lew will become a key piece to the puzzle of getting the US and world economies fully back on track.

John Brennan, CIA Director.   Brennan was an intelligence honcho for the Bush administration, and was already once dropped out of contention for the position due to questions regarding his involvement in the “dark arts” at the Agency under Bush/Cheney.  This controversy has largely seemed to pass and Brennan has come out publicly against practices such as enhanced interrogation.  Brennan has been the president’s point man on counter-terrorism and in presenting the administration’s difficult positions on things like drone strikes to the press.  He has done so professionally and the successful record in counter-terrorism over the last four years is indisputable, crowned by the killing of Osama bin Laden.

For those who do not find drone strikes in Pakistan or Yemen palatable, Brennan usually isn’t much liked.  Indian leaders tend not to be among those.  Obama has made it clear this program will continue regardless, though we predict these paramilitary adventures will fall increasingly into the Pentagon’s lap as the CIA is asked to focus more on intelligence gathering.

The 25-year CIA veteran knows many people in Langley, knows the Middle East and South Asia well, and could offer the team some badly needed stability after David Petraeus’ resignation under scandal.

It’s worth noting that the CIA helped create India’s foreign intelligence service, Research & Analytical Wing (RAW).  Indians will be most interested in learning about Brennan’s plans for intelligence cooperation between the two nations, especially concerning common enemies such as regional terror groups.  Also of interest are the CIA’s nervous relations with the Pakistani ISI.  Brennan has no choice but to dance with both the ISI and RAW.  A conundrum will present itself when US troops pull out of Afghanistan, leaving the intelligence community with the largest remaining US footprint there.  This is also where fierce overt and covert battles between India and Pakistan for influence are already underway.  Will the US try and mediate this, and is it even able to?

There is too much in the intelligence world that we do not know to comment on it too intelligently.  We do know that the history of cooperation exists, and that Brennan is an expert on South Asia.  We expect US-India intelligence sharing will reach unprecedented levels as time goes on, more due to the Asia pivot than because of Mideast travails, though the timeline is murky.

The team.  Yes, they are all white males which seems to distress some Americans.  However, their boss is still very much an African-American.  More importantly they are all qualified for their appointments, and a chip off the Obama block: smart, pragmatic, moderate to a fault, and proven loyal to their Commander in Chief (with the dramatic exception of Hagel, who has no natural home on either side of the aisle).  The last quality is important because Obama is known for micromanaging foreign policy as an area of interest and expertise.

They will have to work together along with many foreigners both friendly and hostile.  The transition away from George W. Bush’s neocon team is absolute and complete.  Indians should be cautiously optimistic about the next four years working with this team.  With the exception of Hagel we can be sure that they know India.

We look forward to covering you, gentlemen.

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