Old West, new quest

For the immediate present the US would be immersed in managing its own internal political contradictions, with not much time left for issues overseas

The re-election of Barack Obama on November 6, 2012, for his second tenure as the 44th President of the United States rang down the curtain on what had become the “greatest show on earth”, running to packed audiences worldwide on television channels.

The intensity of media interest generated by the event demonstrated once again that love it or leave it, the US continues to command an irresistible fascination for the international audience, even amongst the most unreconstructed of hardline Maoists, jihadis or Islamists everywhere, who regard and refer to the US as the Great Satan.
Given the military capabilities and strategic reach of the US, the potential impact of Mr Obama’s re-election on India is certainly a matter of concern which requires to be kept under continuous analysis and scrutiny.
For the present, India enjoys excellent relations with the US and, barring totally unforeseen developments (as in Libya), these will continue smoothly on their present trajectory given the required political support and adequate diplomatic nurturing on both sides. These requirements would appear to be forthcoming with the present governments of both the countries.
Quite naturally under the prevalent circumstances, the outcome of the elections in the US were based overwhelmingly on the middle class of the country and their perceptions of their travails on issues of the country’s economy and illegal immigration from Mexico and Latin America. However, the sudden attack on the American consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, resulting in the death of the American ambassador and three other American citizens, also burst into the electoral spotlight, leading to heated accusations against the government of intelligence failure, lack of leadership and general incompetence. All in all a typical election-time political scenario very familiar to the Indian public as well.
But, in addition, during the pre- and post-election debates in the US (a polite euphemism for the vitriolic exchanges between the presidential contestants), many socio-political faultlines based on colour, race, religion and cultural prejudices came to the fore, which are again all very similar in form and content to those in India.
In general, the electoral aftermath reflected a rising groundswell of popular demand to “Come Home, America”, and bring back its soldiers from nasty, low-intensity wars of ambushes and IEDs that are taking a sporadic but unremitting toll in faraway sinkholes like Iraq, Afghanistan and AfPak.
However, notwithstanding their electoral defeat, an ultra-conservative political right wing with quasi-evangelical overtones, by and large headed by military veterans of Vietnam, Iraq and now Afghanistan, has also emerged strongly in the country, demanding protection of “the traditional values that have made America great”. These values apparently include acceptance, support and even glorification of pre-emptive and unilateral military intervention by the US in international affairs at short notice, whenever deemed necessary in the American interest, with or without the approval or support of the United Nations.
The pre-eminence of the US in all matters is an article of faith across all strata of society in that country. Public opinion generally supports a very strong military based on overwhelming American technological supremacy to retain the undiminished strategic capability for America to influence the course of international geopolitics yet minimise the coffins and body bags of American soldiers returning from places like Korea, Vietnam or, as of now, Afghanistan and AfPak.
A right-wing ultra-conservative establishment, sometimes almost quasi-evangelical in the intensity of its pronouncements, has also emerged at the centrestage of American politics with a substantial hold on that indefinable entity dubbed as Middle America. These elements stridently assert pre-emptive intervention in international affairs to be part of the American charter, implying that, in the final analysis, discussions and diplomacy are not really in keeping with America’s gunfighter heritage and, hence, are effete and unacceptable.
It would be logical to assume that for the immediate present the US would be totally immersed in managing its own internal political contradictions, with not too much time left for issues overseas.
The US has to devote a great deal of its time and attention to Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan and China. As repeatedly highlighted in the recent presidential electoral dialogues, Americans, too, almost without exception, are totally weary and frustrated with their long-term military engagement in a fruitless, thankless undertaking in Afghanistan, which had commenced as an avenging mission in the best traditions of the Old West, but then got involved in nation-building for a sullen and ungrateful population that has repeatedly bitten the hand that tries to feed them. The Afghan Taliban and their Pakistani sponsors want the Americans out of Afghanistan and America is preparing to do just that by 2014, after a peace process in which the Taliban and Pakistani interests will be represented. This is not the best of news for India, which is heavily engaged in the economic buildup of Afghanistan, including several very prestigious and public-oriented projects. However, any Indian presence in Afghanistan will be anathema to Pakistan’s security establishment, which is attempting to retain its guiding hand with the Taliban. The Taliban may have to fend for themselves in the event of a Pakistan-sponsored government taking office after the departure of the US.
The election of the US President and public discourse surrounding it are of course the internal concerns of the US and the American people. However, the US is a superpower, and the international ramifications of Mr Obama’s re-election with regard to American policy towards this region in particular are definitely of interest to India, to be taken note of, especially in the context of the statement by US defence secretary Leon Panetta concerning shift of US focus from Europe towards South and Southeast Asia.

The writer is a former Chief of Army Staff and a former member of Parliament

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