The Cable

Who’s in charge of India?

U.S. and India officials are meeting in Washington today for the first U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue, an important powwow between the world’s oldest democracy and its largest — two countries seeking to improve their ties after decades of mutual wariness and missed opportunities. But who’s in charge of India policy in the Obama administration? Obama’s India ...

U.S. and India officials are meeting in Washington today for the first U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue, an important powwow between the world’s oldest democracy and its largest — two countries seeking to improve their ties after decades of mutual wariness and missed opportunities.

But who’s in charge of India policy in the Obama administration?

Obama’s India team is centered at the State Department, but includes contributions from the Defense and Commerce departments, the National Security Council, and elsewhere. But according to insiders, what’s remarkable about the senior officials working on India is that most of them are not India experts by training. The list includes China hands, Japan hands, Af-Pak experts, along with top diplomats and policy generalists, but few specialists for whom India is a prime area of concern. As a result, many on the Indian side feel their interests haven’t been as well represented within the Obama administration as they could be.

"The U.S. commitment to India is at one level emotional, on another level intellectual. The third dimension is how that’s reflected in the personnel and bureaucratic choices," said one India hand close to the administration. "There are just not a huge number of champions of India at the highest level."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has good relations with India, and traveled there as first lady and also as secretary last July. But the trip didn’t yield too many big results, some say, and it’s not clear how Clinton intends to deepen and grow bilateral ties.

Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns has been doing most of the heavy lifting leading up this week’s dialogue, even traveling to India to prepare. Burns, whose prior experience is mainly in the Middle East and in Moscow, is an able diplomat with wide-ranging responsibilities. For example, he’s the point man on Iran sanctions negotiations, and has been deeply involved in Russia policy. Experts contrast his efforts with those of his predecessor Nick Burns (no relation), who focused on India constantly and used his close connection to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to push for warmer ties, notably in the form of a civilian nuclear agreement.

Below Bill Burns is Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Robert Blake, who manages the U.S.-India relationship on a daily basis for the State Department. A well-regarded former ambassador to Sri Lanka and deputy chief of mission in New Delhi, Blake is seen as more of a caretaker than a strategic thinker when it comes to India policy. Blake replaced Richard Boucher, the former Bush administration spokesman who clashed with Af-Pak special representative Richard Holbrooke at the very start of the Obama administration. Blake is more of a team player.

"Bob Blake is a sherpa. He looks after all the day-to-day affairs that have to be managed," one insider said.

As for Holbrooke, the Indians have been very successful in keeping their country out of his portfolio, out of concern at being linked too closely to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Holbrooke still travels to India, though not as much as he would like, and the Indians still meet with him, probably more than they would like. Holbrooke isn’t at this week’s dialogue; he’s on vacation celebrating his 15th wedding anniversary.

Other State Department officials heavily involved in India policy include Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell and Principal Deputy Director of Policy Planning Derek Chollet. Campbell is a big proponent of the U.S.-India relationship, which he largely sees in the context of traditional balance-of-power politics in Asia. Campbell is influential enough to have an impact, but some see him as another example of India policy being run through East Asia experts. Chollet is described as wanting to be active and helpful on India, but by virtue of his position is dealing with many different issues all the time.

"The number of people who care about India in this administration are really just a handful," one expert said. "That is the heart of the problem."

That concern about India battling with China for administration attention also carries over to the National Security Council. The Senior Director for South Asia is Anish Goel, who was recently promoted to the position. Goel, a bright, young staffer who came over from State, is an MIT-trained chemical engineer and is particularly knowledgeable about nuclear issues. But outsiders and many in India worry that he doesn’t have the public profile or experience to argue for more attention India at the NSC, unlike Senior Director for Asia Jeffrey Bader, a preeminent China expert.

We are also told, but can’t confirm, that Goel reports up to Dennis Ross rather than Bader, making it even more unclear how much access he has to senior White House leadership.

Over at the Defense Department, Deputy Secretary Bill Lynn and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Pacific and Asian Affairs Wallace "Chip" Gregson deal with India the most on joint military exercises and military sales. Energy Secretary Steven Chu is also a key India player in the sense that nuclear issues — still an important topic given the civil nuke deal — sooner or later go through his shop.

The Commerce Department is becoming increasingly important in the U.S.-India relationship, as the Obama administration seeks more access to Indian markets and the Indians ask for more ability to buy "dual-use" technologies from American firms. For that thorny issue, Matt Borman, deputy assistant secretary of commerce for export administration, is crucial. He has a very long history of working with India and is well respected.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers who have shown a lot of interest in U.S.-India relations include Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-CT, Sen.  John McCain, R-AZ, and House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman, D-CA, who is very active on nonproliferation issues. But in general, experts warn, Congress isn’t driving India policy in any meaningful way.

"If they are lucky, they can stop the administration from doing things, but they can’t compel the administration to do the right things," one expert said.

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