Feature

Grading the President: A View From South Asia

In South Asia, the impact of a U.S. president’s policies on the parochial concerns of the region is of more consequence than his global agendas. George W. Bush’s rejection of treaties such as the Kyoto Protocol and the International Criminal Court has convinced the subcontinent that he has little use for multilateral institutions. But, since ...

In South Asia, the impact of a U.S. president’s policies on the parochial concerns of the region is of more consequence than his global agendas. George W. Bush’s rejection of treaties such as the Kyoto Protocol and the International Criminal Court has convinced the subcontinent that he has little use for multilateral institutions. But, since few people in either India or Pakistan are themselves multilateralist out of conviction rather than necessity, judgments of Bush are not much influenced by those considerations.

Instead, whoever is sitting in the White House becomes the emblem of South Asia’s hopes and disappointments. In the case of Bush, both India and Pakistan have desperately tried to court the United States and enhance their statures as regional powers; both have been inevitably dismayed that the United States has not reciprocated in full measure.

Initially, Indians saw the United States’ war on terrorism as a stunning example of Bush’s decisiveness, resolve, and ability to craft a diverse global coalition. That admiration swiftly gave way to the cynical perception that even in the war on terrorism, Bush is interested in building alliances only to the extent that they advance U.S. interests. The view from India is that the United States, for its own short-term interests, has ignored terrorism that emanates from Pakistan, forgiven Pakistan’s assistance to North Korea’s nuclear program, and consistently strengthened Pakistan’s military at the expense of civil society. For their part, many Pakistanis chafe under the impression that Bush sees their country as little more than a remote military outpost. (This sentiment, however, is tempered by Pakistan’s precarious dependence upon the United States for military aid and financial bailouts.) And Pakistanis won’t soon forget that their "reward" for assisting the Bush administration in Afghanistan was the arrest of more than 300 of Pakistan’s citizens as part of the post–September 11 crackdown on Muslim immigrants living in the United States.

Insofar as personalities matter, former President Bill Clinton’s five-day tour of India in 2000 — when he charmed politicians and crowds alike — had a profound impact because he was able to convey that he personally cared deeply about India; his controversial side trip to Pakistan, however, seems not to be an object of discussion in either country. Bush labors under the shadow of Clinton’s visit to India. And, for most Indians, Bush does not measure up to his predecessor’s personal charisma, intricate knowledge of the global economy, or ability to explain his conception of a world order beyond the ephemeral "coalition of the willing."

But overall, the perception of Bush remains directly related to the perception of the United States itself. Many people, Hindu nationalists in particular, who think of India as a great power, are genuinely ambivalent about the president’s demeanor. On the one hand, there is a sneaking admiration for his unilateralism, his single-minded ability to do whatever it takes to advance U.S. power — even if it means relying on military force and disregarding world opinion. On the other hand, because India is, to put it mildly, in no position to act like the United States, the country resents the president when he does not fully acknowledge India’s interests. In both India and Pakistan, Bush benefits from the natural esteem many have for U.S. power, but he does little to assuage those who see that power as a provocation.

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