By Swapan Dasgupta
When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sits with the assembled world leaders at the Nuclear Security Conference in Washington, DC, he should ponder over one notable absentee: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Once the US’s most steadfast ally and a country with which it enjoyed a ‘special relationship’, Israel’s relationship with Washington has taken a precipitate nosedive.
There are many who will undoubtedly view Netanyahu’s absence to Israeli evasion over its nuclear ambivalence. This may undoubtedly be a factor but Israel has in the past faced this ticklish question with a combination of deft diplomacy and nationalist brazenness. What is different about today’s Washington that made the otherwise pugnacious Netanyahu opt out of an important international gathering (although Israel will be nominally represented)?
The answer is simple: President Barack Obama.
In the past few months the international grapevine has been buzzing with tales of a new, abrasive style of diplomacy that has become the signature tune of the Obama Administration. It may have been understandable if this departure from niceties had been confined to dealings with countries such as Iran and Venezuela that don’t miss any opportunity to take side swipes at the US. Intriguingly, Obama appears to have reserved his acid tongue for those who are considered close allies of the US.
It would not be inaccurate to suggest that the Israeli Prime Minister, the only representative of a vibrant democracy in the region, was sought to be wilfully browbeaten by Obama in the White House during their meeting in March. It is said that much of Obama’s impatience stems from the perception of Netanyahu as a sympathiser of the Republicans on Capitol Hill. If so, it suggests that the American President has a misplaced sense of his own intellectual superiority and a heightened sense of liberal intolerance. There was just no way that the thorny issue of East Jerusalem which Israel, with some justification, considers an integral part of its national Capital, was going to be resolved in one meaningful sitting at either the White House or Camp David. That Obama could actually believe it could suggests a rough-and-ready approach to diplomacy which may soon begin to irk even the friends of the US.
Nor was Obama’s peremptoriness limited to Netanyahu. On March 28, Obama made a sudden visit to Kabul, partly to cheer American forces stationed there and partly to confer with President Hamid Karzai. According to reports carefully leaked by the American side, Obama read Karzai the proverbial riot act. He is said to have told him that the US found his style of governance quite unacceptable and the levels of corruption well beyond the threshold of tolerance. He was told to shape up or ship out.
Obama’s sharp tongue lashing hasn’t gone down well in Afghanistan. Karzai has rightly been offended by Obama’s discourtesy and has lost no opportunity to lash out at the West. He has sought to befriend Iran, caution the US against any unilateral offensive on Kandahar and even let it be known that sheer exasperation with American arrogance may drive him into the arms of the Taliban. The US has hit back by calling Karzai’s mental stability into question and even hinting that he is suffering the effects of hallucinatory drugs. Rarely has the relationship between two allies plummeted to such incredible depths.
For all practical purposes the US has said its triple talaq to Karzai. The question is: When will the elected Afghan President be replaced by a compliant nominee of the US and its outsourced partner, Pakistan?
It is being said that the political unilateralism that marked the passage of the Health Care legislation through Congress has taken hold of Obama. From being the genial representative of a new, less divisive political culture, the US President appears to have evolved into an evangelical crusader - pursuing that which he regards is right. It’s an approach that may work in the US, although even that is debatable, but there are other civilisations where everything is not always divided into black and white, and where old world courtesies do play a role.
Not everything about Karzai is digestible but then, democracy and Afghanistan are not the most compatible of partners. To assess the world through the prism of the political correctness of liberal America is unwise. It suggests an ideological arrogance that could rebound on the US. Obama wants to get out of Afghanistan fast. But why pick on Karzai to facilitate the process? Will a handpicked nominee of Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani in Kabul’s Presidential Palace be a better bet?
These are concerns that the Indian Prime Minister should bear in mind during his US visit. It has now emerged that it was a peremptory Obama directive to get India and Pakistan to improve relations that was a factor behind the useless meeting of Foreign Secretaries last month. Whether India chooses to engage with Pakistan after Islamabad’s foot-dragging over the 26/11 culprits is not a matter that should be of obsessive concern to the White House. Of course, the US can give its suggestions but paying heed to the White House’s ‘directive’ diplomacy will not be appreciated within India. This may explain why the US-India bonhomie that surrounded the passage of the nuclear deal has been replaced by a climate of suspicion which, if allowed to fester, could so easily turn into hostility.
How Obama chooses to turn his machismo into political advantage in his battle with the Republicans is a matter best left to the American voters. It is of academic concern to India. But when this combativeness is transferred to the global stage and, furthermore, is accompanied by gratuitous discourtesy, it is time for a country like India to consider diplomatic alternatives to over-dependence on the US. The experiences of Netanyahu and Karzai are clear writings on the wall.