Apprehensive Allies: India and Israel in the Obama Era


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May 6, 2009
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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Apprehensive Allies:
India and Israel in the Obama Era

by S. Samuel C. Rajiv

BESA Center for Strategic Studies

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: India and Israel seem to be up against a "pragmatic,"
non-ideological American administration under President Obama whose policy
initiatives and proclivities have the potential to cause friction in their
respective bilateral interactions, despite the best of intentions. Each of
the two countries is suffering from a bout of "Bush Blues" since Obama took
over in Washington. The issues in contention range from strategic concerns
like Pakistan and Iran, to nuclear non-proliferation and economic factors
like outsourcing of jobs. Given the huge stakes involved in the interactions
among these three vibrant democracies, concerted efforts must be made to
minimize the negative fallout of any differences they might have, while
striving towards mutually acceptable solutions.


Having enjoyed a relative period of warmth (Israel) and extra-ordinary
growth (India) in their respective bilateral relationships with the United
States under a very ideological and "personal" President George W. Bush,
India and Israel seem to be suffering from a bout of "Bush Blues" since
President Obama took over the reins of power. Public and elite opinion in
both the countries seems to have veered around to the view that India and
Israel, respectively, are in for a hard time under this more "pragmatic"
president, who does not always share the perspectives that privileged India
and Israel under the former administration.

Bush and India: Ideological and Strategic Drivers

The Bush administration followed favorable policies towards India and Israel
for a variety of reasons. Just the fact that India is the world’s largest
democracy elicited a strong reaction from Bush and a different pecking
order. Bush courted the country aggressively, so much so that his second
Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice even promised active assistance to help
India achieve great power "nirvana." These moves were geared towards
configuring India to more effectively counter America’s future competitor,
the Chinese dragon, for dominance in Asia. New Delhi was however patently
uncomfortable with such formulations, given its own burgeoning trade
relations with its behemoth neighbor.

The "New Framework for the US-India Defense Relationship" signed on June 28,
2005, and the landmark Indo-US nuclear deal of July 18, 2005, are loud
symbols of efforts to forge an enhanced strategic partnership between the
two countries. The role played by the Indian-American community in pushing
the deal through the various branches of the US government also signified
the new-found status of one of the most vibrant, politically active, and
economically affluent émigré community in the United States.

Obama and India: Issues of Contention and Concern

The unwritten perception in India during the 2008 US presidential campaign
once Hillary Clinton – perceived to be very pro-India – was knocked out of
the Democratic Party nomination race, was that the Republican Senator John
McCain was a better bet to continue Mr. Bush’s favorable policies towards
the country. (This among many other themes rings true for Israel as well).
In the few months that President Obama has been in power, while the above
strategic drivers continue to operate to varying degrees, certain "issues of
contention" have been causing concern to Indian policy makers and public
opinion. Prominent among these are listed below.


The economic crisis has brought to the fore issues regarding the effect that
outsourcing of jobs to countries like India has on the domestic job market.
Unveiling new tax reforms at an event at the White House on May 5, 2009,
Obama noted that the current American system encouraged firms to pay "lower
taxes if you create a job in Bangalore, India, than if you create one in
Buffalo, New York." The strong Indian outsourcing industry, which had
notched up exports worth over $45 billion during 2008-09, is expected to
grow to $60 billion by 2010 and be worth over $200 billion by 2020
(according to McKinsey and Company). Given the fact that over 60 percent of
its current exports are to the US, there has been justifiable concern over
the likely negative impact of any protectionist measure by the Obama


The increased dependence on Islamabad by the US administration to prosecute
its fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan has
also been a cause of worry for India. Increased monetary support (exceeding
$1.5 billion per year), the supply of sophisticated weaponry (night vision
equipment, laser-guided bombs for F-16 fighter jets) among other factors
have brought heartburn to New Delhi, despite efforts by Washington to
assuage India’s concerns and continued high-level engagement, exemplified by
the visit of Secretary Clinton in July.

President Obama’s "AfPak" strategy finally recognizes the imperative of
dealing with the terrorist safe havens inside Pakistan to have any measure
of success in Afghanistan, given the tribal, ethnic and organic linkages
with Islamic radicals operating with impunity on either side of the border.
However, despite the Pakistani Army taking on extremist forces in certain
parts of its territory, official instruments of the Pakistani state continue
to bleed India using these same forces.

This is exemplified by the fact that cadres of the Laskhar-e-Taiba (LeT),
chiefly responsible for the terrible Mumbai attacks of November 26, 2008,
during which even a Jewish cultural center was attacked, could not have
carried such an elaborate and daring attack with military-precision without
the active support and connivance of the Pakistani military and intelligence
agencies like the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). While the US on its
part has repeatedly urged Pakistan to bring the perpetrators of the terror
attacks to justice, the fact of the matter is that the chief of the LeT,
Hafiz Saeed continues to be a free man, despite enormous evidence provided
to Pakistan by India.

Climate Change

Climate change, apart from nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, are
some of the key policy initiatives being vigorously pursued by the Obama
administration. These issues have enormous potential to become contentious
in the India-US bilateral relationship. On climate change for instance,
India has repeatedly stated its inability to take on any legally-binding
emissions reduction targets in a post-Kyoto framework, despite continued US
pressure to do so. New Delhi has also pointed out that it has a minimal
carbon footprint (less than 4 percent of global emissions), one of the
lowest per capita emissions in the world (less than 2 tons per annum) and
that its developmental priorities are huge.

Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament

Like Israel, there is also the likelihood that India will come under
increasing pressure to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) ahead
of the NPT Review Conference in May 2010. The statement by US Assistant
Secretary of State Rose Goettemoeller on May 5, 2009 that "universal
adherence to the NPT itself – including by India, Israel, Pakistan and North
Korea, remains a fundamental objective of the United States" had both
countries cued up.

Indian objections to the NPT however are huge, given its discriminatory
nature and lack of effective mechanisms to prevent breakout states from
achieving nuclear weapon capabilities, among other issues. Indian concerns
regarding nuclear disarmament also remain. Achieving comprehensive and
universal nuclear disarmament, which has been India’s long-held objective
instead of any regional or unilateralist measures, is still a long way from
fruition, if at all. Continuing and robust nuclear force modernization
programs of nuclear weapon states are also a huge stumbling block in any
effort to convince New Delhi of the merits of arguments regarding FMCT and

Bush and the Middle East: The "Mantra" of Forced Democratization

President Bush pursued his democratization agenda in the Middle East
vigorously. The war in Iraq was prosecuted as an effort to establish a
functioning democracy in the heart of the Middle East, and was held as an
example of what could potentially be achieved in the broader region. The
dysfunctionalities of the region by the Bush administration were seen as
symptomatic of the ills which aided disgruntled and relatively-educated
young men to arm themselves with box cutters and hijack planes and fly them
into symbols of American economic and military power, on September 11, 2001.
These young men who died for the "holy" cause of jihad were of course
followers of extreme Islamic radical ideology who diagnosed the origins of
the ills facing their region in the policies of the world’s only superpower,
conveniently side-stepping the cruel lack of development of economic and
human resources, the presence of autocratic and dictatorial regimes, lack of
freedom and human rights, among other stark deficiencies. The alleged
step-motherly treatment towards Israel and lack of progress on the issue of
the Palestinian homeland was a prominent festering sore. The presence of
Western infidels, in the aftermath of the first Persian Gulf War, who
violated their religion’s sacred grounds, only added to the combustible

Bush and Israel: Belated Push for Peace and a "Long Leash"

Caught up with the global "war" on terror and the attendant twin wars in
Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush administration became actively involved in
nudging the protagonists towards a peace deal only in the later period of
its second term. Its efforts accordingly did not meet with much success,
despite the Annapolis process of November 2007 and Condoleeza Rice’s belated
hectic shuttle diplomacy.

The Bush administration was also seen as having given a long leash to
Jerusalem on its defense and foreign policy agenda, be it in the Lebanon War
of 2006 or the Gaza offensive, Operation "Cast Lead," which began in late
December 2008, in the dying moments of the Bush presidency. Analysts noted
that the 22-day offensive, which was wound down exactly a day before Barack
Obama was sworn in as the new US president, was geared towards utilizing the
goodwill of the previous administration as well as starting on a clean page
for an administration whose policy proclivities could not be pre-judged.

Obama and Israel: Positive Vibes but Strong Concerns
West Bank Settlements and a Palestinian State

Mr. Obama, in his campaign speeches and in his pronouncements after taking
over, has reiterated the importance of the relationship with Israel and his
administration’s desire to maintain and strengthen it. In the Cairo speech
of June 4, 2009 for instance, Obama pointed out the “unbreakable” bond
shared with Israel, based upon cultural and historical ties. Despite these
positive vibes however, the administration’s "strong" messages regarding the
construction of settlements in the West Bank and the establishment of a
Palestinian state and "rapprochement" moves towards Tehran have generated
concerns in Jerusalem that Obama may be veering away from a pro-Israel stand
on issues of strategic interest to it.

The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on its part has not
entertained American pressures on a complete freeze to the settlement
building activity. In his landmark speech at the BESA Center on June 14,
2009, Mr. Netanyahu opposed a total freeze on the settlements but for the
first time accepted the imperative of the establishment of a Palestinian
state, though one which will necessarily have to be demilitarized. He also
reiterated that it was imperative that the Palestinians and the Arabs
recognize Israel as a Jewish nation-state, and asserted that an undivided
Jerusalem will have to be the capital of the Jewish state.

Mr. Obama’s Special Envoy to the region George Mitchell meanwhile has been
actively involved in hammering out differences and trying to fashion a
mutually acceptable platform around which all sides in the dispute could
come together. As of this writing however, there seem to be more
imponderables than hope. These include the continued disarray in the
Palestinian ranks and uncertainties regarding the prospective role of Hamas,
whose constitution continues to call for the destruction of the Jewish


In his path-breaking direct appeal to the Iranian people of March 20, 2009
for instance, Obama held out the prospect of “engagement that is honest and
grounded in mutual respect.” The reactions from the Iranian leadership to
that offer have however not been positive. The re-elected Iranian President
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other officials have not only rejected these
overtures but have pointed out the difficulties involved in coming to terms
with the long history of ill will and hatred shared between the two
countries. US officials on their part have been insisting that crucial areas
in which Washington could have a constructive interaction with Iran was on
the need to stabilize Iran’s western as well as its eastern neighbors – Iraq
and Afghanistan, the latter currently being America’s primary foreign policy

Despite Israel’s strong concerns about Tehran’s nuclear program, Washington
has proved to be a less than interested party in actively pursuing a
military solution. Though President Obama and his officials have stated that
no options were off the table in dealing with Tehran’s nuclear ambitions,
his administration has privileged efforts at finding a negotiated solution
to the impasse, and has called for “tough but direct diplomacy” to convince
Iran to forgo its nuclear option, much to Jerusalem’s chagrin. Secretary
Clinton has even suggested that American nuclear umbrella was sufficient to
protect its allies in the Middle East in the event of Iran acquiring the
nuclear bomb. While the efficacy of extended nuclear deterrence is open to
debate, Israel, despite its strong diplomatic offensive (and possible covert
attempts) to pre-empt a possible Iranian nuclear bomb, has been taking steps
to ensure that it has robust deterrence capabilities.

An Assessment

As the above discussion indicates, on issues of strategic concern to both
the countries, Israel and India seem to be on the same boat, fighting
against a strong "Obama current" (or rather, different boats but up against
the same "problematic" current). Given the huge stakes involved, these three
vibrant, multi-faceted, functioning democracies and pluralistic societies
should strive towards mutually-acceptable solutions on issues of concern in
their bilateral interactions sooner than later. Only then will the full
potentialities of their bilateral relationships be achieved for each other’s
mutual benefit and for ensuring regional stability.

Mr. Samuel Rajiv is a researcher specializing in nuclear and Middle East
issues at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi,
India. He was a visiting research scholar at the BESA Center in 2005-06.

IMRA - Tuesday, August 11, 2009 Apprehensive Allies: India and Israel in the Obama Era

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