New Delhi: Ambassador Robin Raphel launched the congressionally mandated South Asia bureau at the state department as its first assistant secretary of state in 1993. After 30 years of service, she retired from the state department in late 2005 and served in the office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, an independent body established by Congress to oversee the expenditure of nearly $20 billion (Rs97,000 crore) in US reconstruction assistance for Iraq.
Falling short: Raphel says US should have inserted itself more in Pakistan’s strategy and systems, as it has provided significant military assistance to the South Asian country. Mark Wilson / AFP
Two years ago, she joined as a practice leader at Cassidy and Associates, a Washington-based lobby firm, to advise multinational corporations, foreign governments and other organizations and advocate their interests in Washington, and counsel US companies on meeting business challenges abroad. She was in India last week and spoke to Mint on the challenges faced by Barack Obama, the next US president. Edited excerpts:
What are the central challenges facing the Obama administration?
Big question, lots of challenges. Clearly, the No. 1 priority is the economic recession and the global, and particularly domestic, implications. I think President-elect Obama has made it very clear that this is the first priority issue for him.
Then when you look on the international side, first you have to look at the two wars that US forces are involved in; on Iraq there is evolving consensus on the way forward; the speed with which US forces withdraw will depend on circumstances and we can live with that.
Afghanistan is more challenging; Obama has made it clear that the focus should have been there and not Iraq. Trying to pick that back up after eight years is not easy.
Then, at the global level, (he would focus on) re-establishing the image of America as a power (that) is willing to listen, work in conjunction with allies; on the 3Ds, defence, diplomacy and development, ensure a greater focus on diplomacy and development.
Can President Obama be different, as he claimed, given the circumstances that he has inherited?
Look, every new leader inherits a certain number of circumstances. And particularly in a democracy, where the range of policies is somewhat limited. The general practice, and I was a diplomat for many years, is that whenever there is a new government, we are sent out to different countries to say that there is general consistency in our foreign policy approaches.
Because there are some situations in the world, as I mentioned two wars, the global threat of terrorism, the economic recession and all that, it gives a little more play and opportunity to change things. But at the same time our fundamental interests remain the same and so there will be changes in style, which I would welcome and so would the rest of the world, changes in emphasis, but I don’t see any dramatic changes in the way we approach our foreign policy.
The expectations from Obama are very high. Do you think he will be able to deliver?
Of course, expectations are high. This was a dramatic and hugely positive event for America and the American electorate. He is the first African-American president; we have had young presidents before, but he is particularly young. Very eloquent, charismatic man, but not highly experienced. It is a generational change too; we have changed from the World War II generation, to the baby-boomer generation, which was represented in this race by Hillary Clinton, and now to another generation. So, this is significant historically. In terms of how much palpable, visible change in substance, is either possible or desirable, that is a very different matter. But the attitude, posture, style—those are important things.
The sense of disappointment, if he fails to deliver, can be very quick?
That is certainly possible. But I think he had been very wise to say repeatedly, especially on the economic front, that this was likely to take a long time; will get worse before getting better. Those are hard things to say. He has been very wise, in my view, to say that from the beginning to manage expectations.
You have two global flashpoints, one potential and another happening in South and West Asia. What can be done to defuse them?
It looks like there may well just be a ceasefire (in West Asia), just before he takes oath of office. It would, of course, be a very good thing, so that he need not be pulled into it immediately. It will give him a little bit of breathing time to get his team together and figure out how he wishes to approach that part of the world. It is always very fraught, because of domestic politics; if you look at the situation domestically, you can understand reactions of both sides.
Israel is small and embattled; was being rocketed by Hamas and finally decides it has got to strike and so it does. The goal is to somehow take away that capacity from Hamas in a clean surgical way. Alas, it did not work out that way and observers in that part of the world knew for a long time that it would not work out that way. Now Israel doesn’t achieve its goal and undoubtedly you have strengthened Hamas. It is important to step back and hopefully the new Obama team...will find some new approaches for a way forward; nothing dramatic, but something to bring about a forward movement.
In his choice for the person to head the state department he has in Hillary Clinton, a former rival. How do you see this tension working out and impacting US foreign policy?
First of all, it is very much to President Obama’s credit that he chose a former rival and in my point of view the most qualified person for this particular portfolio. It shows his confidence and his ability to put the politics behind and get on with the business of governance. I think that is one of the advantages of someone who does not have too much political baggage. So, he is freer to act without prejudice, which I think is a positive thing. I think they will very quickly come to consensus on how to approach major issues.
What about Iran?
I think the consensus with Obama and his team is clearly that “we need to engage”. The principle of not talking to people we do not like is not a sustainable or wise approach. And we are not even consistent in that regard with our previously strong adversaries; an obvious case in point is the Cold War and the Soviet Union. There is consensus that we need to find a way to engage with Iran.
And in truth, the Bush administration realized that, but it is, of course, very difficult to walk back when you have had this category of policy. So, it will be much easier for a new group to actually engage; figuring out how, at what level is another matter.
What do you foresee for US foreign policy with respect to South Asia?
With respect to India, I do not see much change; it will continue as it has. With the nuclear agreement passing, there is a delegation here of US manufacturers, so that will carry on; so will the defence and economic relationships continue. The challenge, of course, is Afghanistan and Pakistan. And this new team has said and will pursue a more regional approach, not just a bilateral approach.
The reason, to be fair, why we ended up with a narrower approach was not because people didn’t think up of a region, but sometimes it is simpler to simplify if you don’t want to have six different governments. It doesn’t work and then you have to go to a broader approach. The whole situation is at a point that it is obvious that you really need a regional approach. And again it is easier to change course in this regard with a new team.
Will it be South Asia as a region or just Pakistan-Afghanistan as a region?
It will be broader than that. The goal will be to stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan. To do that, you will have to speak to everybody in the surrounding neighbourhood; including India, even though it does not have a border with Afghanistan.
Will it, as feared in India, end up linking the resolution of Kashmir to a regional solution?
I don’t know what their plans are. I would very much doubt that this would be an early priority. One reason is that there has been an election in Kashmir. And, by all accounts, it was a free and fair election.
So, there is a new government there, which gives an opportunity; and one that supports Kashmir being part of India. So, there is an opportunity there...,but it requires New Delhi and the government of Kashmir to really work well together.
I would say that New Delhi needs to pay very close attention and do everything it can to get the government to succeed.
So, you don’t see the risk of such a strategy reinserting the equation between India and Pakistan?
They linked themselves I would say; the rest of us tried to delink them for decades.
Now that they have been delinked, do you see the risk that they would be linked again?
It depends upon how things evolve. The problem now is in Afghanistan and Pakistan; that’s pretty clear. India, of course, needs to be wise, smart and keep on the top of its mind that stability of Pakistan is central to the security of India. So, anything it can do to help in that regard, they need to keep it top of their agenda. When terrible things like Mumbai happen, people get angry and frustrated and are entitled to bash this one and that. Rhetoric is one thing, but in reality that is not the solution.
The solution is to help the government of Pakistan accomplish its own stated purpose, which is to get rid of terrorism, insurgency and the threat to its own internal stability. That is their stated intent and there is no reason to believe that it is not their real intent. But there has been a lot of drift in Pakistan; I hesitate to be hypercritical about anyone. They have had a difficult history, is a hard country to govern and they have got behind the curve on economic and social issues.
What we in the international community need to do is bolster a civilian government so that they can gain strength and deliver to the people so that there is no need felt for the military to come back.
But that is the ideal circumstance; Pakistan is not a homogeneous entity and has multiple power centres. For instance, the Mumbai attack has set back the bilateral relationship between the two countries by about 10 years. How do both countries retrieve the situation from here? The onus will also be on the US, because it has serious interests to protect in Afghanistan.
It won’t be 10 years, but I understand what you mean. We will have to redouble efforts to find new ways to help Pakistan wean themselves away from the tool of insurgent extremists and so on. I don’t see the logic of that was ever successfully challenged.
As a country to which we have provided significant military assistance, we should have inserted ourselves a bit more on the strategy and better systems; not to interfere in Pakistan’s internal affairs, but since we were providing so much, we should have thought through more to see how it is used and what conditions we would have preferred to do on that.
We did not do that in post- 9/11 rush and certain patterns got set and then it was hard to, after the fact, set this condition and that condition on assistance.
I think we need to be more mindful and have serious discussions with the Pakistanis as to what they perceive the threats to their state (to be) and what is the best way forward so that they do not fall back on old habits. And that is essentially what has happened.
Pakistan faces a severe economic crisis and, therefore, needs global assistance. Does that offer a lever to nudge it in a different direction?
Yes. But I think it is not always very constructive to pile on political conditionalities when you are down and out. That doesn’t always work.