Dear Gentle Readers:
In a previous post I shared with you the thoughts of my aunt, Shubha Singh. As a journalist in India, she has a unique perspective on America and our politics. I thought I would share her recent article discussing her thoughts on the new direction America's foreign policy should be heading. Enjoy.
New Priorities for American Foreign Policy by Shubha Singh
President Barack Obama’s promise of change not only caught the imagination of people worldwide but also raised expectations around the world. The American President’s inaugural speech set the tone for change in US foreign policy when he spoke of reaching out to adversaries. There is now great interest in how the Obama Administration plans to reshape American foreign policy to emphasise cooperation with other countries as well as rebuild the American image abroad.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s first foreign visit was to Asia and not to Europe, the usual destination for new secretaries of state -- that was a change in itself which indicated a greater emphasis on Asia. President Obama himself chose Canada for his first foreign visit.
There are four main areas where new American initiatives are required - Russia, the Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. India has a deep interest in the wide arc encompassing each of these areas. President Obama has listed Afghanistan as a top priority, and both Russia and Iran have a role to play in Afghanistan. US-Russian relations have been frosty ever since Georgia’s misadventure over Abhkazia and South Ossetia and improved US-Russia relations will be an important factor for global stability.
The first annunciation of President Obama’s foreign policy came in Vice President Joe Biden’s speech at the influential Munich Security Conference. Vice president Biden said that it was “time to press the reset button and revisit the many areas where we can and should be working together with Russia.” Restoring strained relations is not exactly an easy task when there is years of suspicions fuelled by bitter rivalry, but both sides have an opportunity to seek a better relationship. With the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, the US will require greater cooperation with other nations, including Russia to deal with the Taliban upsurge and to curtail the illicit narcotics trade.
Washington plans to send an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan. About 80 per cent of the NATO supplies are routed through Pakistan, but this supply route has been under threat from the Taliban in Pakistan who have been burning down trucks filled with supplies. There is now an urgent need to locate new access routes through Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan President Kurmanbek Bakiyev has already called for the closure of the US military base in Manas, which was being used to fly in supplies to Afghanistan. Russia is well connected to the Central Asian republics through a good rail-road network developed during the Soviet days from Russia through Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan Uzbekistan to Afghanistan. Spain and Germany have already used that route to move supplies to their troops in Afghanistan. Washington would need Russian cooperation for an access route through the Central Asian republics even if it decides to move supplies through Georgia instead of Russia.
Iran has a role in two neighbouring countries, Iraq and Afghanistan. American overtures to Iran have received waspish responses from Iran’s President Ahmedinejad, but there is also a glimmer of an opening under the Iranian leader’s rhetoric. Iran is to hold presidential elections in June and President Ahmedinejad would need to take domestic opinion into account in the next few months. The Washington-Teheran war of words had become a matter of national dignity in Iran; if the wordy spats are toned down the majority of Iranians would want peaceful relations with America. Cutting out the raw threats that used to emanate from Washington during the Bush era and reaching out to the Iranian government would open the way for a dialogue. Washington has worked together with Iran even while maintaining a distance - during the worst days of the insurgency in Iraq when the US-led occupation forces had sought Iran’s cooperation to reduce the sectarian violence in Iraq.
The situation in the Middle East has become more volatile with the recent election in Israel which brought a more rightwing colour to its Parliament. The Israeli attack on Gaza had inflamed passions in not just the Muslim world, but had evoked wide spread outrage and anger around the world at the cruel shelling of civilian homes in Gaza. It is the US all-embracing support for Israeli actions that has sent waves of anti-Americanism through parts of Asia. The continuing growth of new Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, the destruction of the Palestine administration’s European Union funded infrastructure thereby whittling down the influence of the moderate Fateh group, the refusal to recognise the result of fair elections which brought the Hamas to victory have all added to the anti-American feelings in the region. Even in India, where the George W Bush presidency was seen in a positive light because of the Indo-US agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation, the bombing of Gaza resulted in angry Indian groups holding street demonstrations in protest.
Special representatives have been appointed for two regions, George Mitchell for the Middle East and Richard C Holbrooke for Afghanistan-Pakistan. President Obama told an Arab television channel that Mitchell’s brief was to ‘listen’ while on his first tour to the Middle East. George Mitchell would do well to listen while the new government is being constituted in Israel, but the push to get the Israelis and the Hamas into a dialogue should not be delayed.
After months of denial and obfuscation, Pakistan has finally admitted that the Mumbai attacks were at least partly plotted on its territory and said that it had arrested most of those it believed were responsible. In compelling Pakistan's response to the Mumbai terrorist attack, Washington has ensured that the crisis in the subcontinent doesn't escalate. But the agreement to buy peace with the radical group in Swat to enforce Sharia law has shown how parts of Pakistan are slowly sliding into the grip of the fundamentalists.
There is an aura of goodwill surrounding President Obama; he has made the initial moves for setting the agenda for a change in the way America’s foreign policy was conducted during the last eight years. There is optimism in many parts of the world that he will make the effort to bring about a real change that would help to refurbish the American image around the world.