Received wisdom has it that in their second term American presidents are more subdued from a foreign policy perspective. In Barack Obama’s case, this is doubly so. His presidency came in a decade when the US was engaged in two wars at the same time, something highly unusual in the recent history of American foreign policy. An exhausted electorate agreed to his move to bring soldiers back home. At the same time, he has continued to wage a stealth war in the Af-Pak region—drones instead of boots on the ground have worked well, so far.
The bigger challenge he faces, and one which he recognizes clearly, is that of slow but creeping American decline. Except for a defensive war, it is unlikely that the US can afford protracted warfare—financially at least—in two different theatres at the same time. It is this realization that has emboldened countries as diverse as Russia, Pakistan and China into formulating aggressive foreign policies. China’s routine skirmishes in the South China Sea would have been unthinkable even five years ago. No wonder the US is encouraging friendly regional powers to shoulder greater responsibility. France in North Africa is a recent example.
It is this aspect of the constraints that Obama faces that should worry India. Drones in Af-Pak may serve US interests but once American soldiers withdraw from Afghanistan, instability there is a foregone conclusion. It is now fashionable to state that what happens in Kabul does not affect New Delhi. This is myopic. No sooner will the last American soldier leave Kabul than Rawalpindi (and not Islamabad) will get “ideas”. As it stands today, India is simply in no position—strategically and politically—to counter Pakistan. One only has to run the events of the past two weeks in sequential order to realize what a sorry state we are in. Obama’s second term holds the potential of unleashing some nasty surprises on New Delhi, unless of course, it wakes up soon.
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