Shadow Government

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Was the India visit a “ringing success”?

President Obama’s foreign policy spinmeisters have received assistance from an unlikely corner. Ashley Tellis, one of our most knowledgeable South Asia experts, pushes back against critics who have pooh-poohed what the president accomplished in his recent trip to India. The article posted elsewhere on the FP site, calls the trip the exact opposite of a ...

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

President Obama's foreign policy spinmeisters have received assistance from an unlikely corner. Ashley Tellis, one of our most knowledgeable South Asia experts, pushes back against critics who have pooh-poohed what the president accomplished in his recent trip to India. The article posted elsewhere on the FP site, calls the trip the exact opposite of a failure, a "ringing success."

Since I also privately received pushback from another knowledgeable India hand for my own characterization of the India visit as "solid but not stellar," the Tellis article caused me to rethink my judgment. Rethink, but not revise. Not yet anyway.

Tellis begins by arguing that the Obama administration undersold the trip by focusing its talking points around jobs when the larger optics of the trip were equally important. I agree that the larger optics and public diplomacy of the trip belong on the positive side of the ledger. President Obama effectively deployed his global popularity and garnered favorable coverage from a notoriously anti-American media. I also agree that the trade deals were positive and that it was especially noteworthy that the deals included military equipment. This was a good step forward in the strategic relationship. One might even call it solid.

President Obama’s foreign policy spinmeisters have received assistance from an unlikely corner. Ashley Tellis, one of our most knowledgeable South Asia experts, pushes back against critics who have pooh-poohed what the president accomplished in his recent trip to India. The article posted elsewhere on the FP site, calls the trip the exact opposite of a failure, a "ringing success."

Since I also privately received pushback from another knowledgeable India hand for my own characterization of the India visit as "solid but not stellar," the Tellis article caused me to rethink my judgment. Rethink, but not revise. Not yet anyway.

Tellis begins by arguing that the Obama administration undersold the trip by focusing its talking points around jobs when the larger optics of the trip were equally important. I agree that the larger optics and public diplomacy of the trip belong on the positive side of the ledger. President Obama effectively deployed his global popularity and garnered favorable coverage from a notoriously anti-American media. I also agree that the trade deals were positive and that it was especially noteworthy that the deals included military equipment. This was a good step forward in the strategic relationship. One might even call it solid.

But beyond the trade deals, the list of tangible accomplishments on the trip that Tellis offers is rather thin. In fact, if one were to draw up a list of "things we offered to India," that list would look a lot like Tellis’s list of "things we accomplished on the trip." The only deliverable from India was a commitment to upgrade its export control system — a worthy and long-overdue step. Again, this is on the positive side of the ledger, but it falls somewhere short of a triumph in my book. Maybe closer to solid.

Importantly (well, importantly for me, anyway), Tellis does not address the question at the heart of my equivocal reaction to the trip: what did we get from India in exchange for the United Nations Security Council offer? Or rather, his answer appears to be that the intrinsic benefits of welcoming India into the ruling councils are reward enough, and I just don’t find that convincing.

Tellis claims "intensifying security cooperation" with India will "redound to the benefit of the United States in Afghanistan." I certainly hope so, but I remain unconvinced especially since Tellis also touts as progress "that Obama has rejected the Pakistani claim that India’s involvement in Afghanistan undermines the United States-led international mission and threatens Pakistan." We can all agree that Pakistani concerns are grounded more in their own paranoia than in Indian behavior, but that doesn’t make the paranoia any less real and or any less consequential for our effort in Afghanistan. I am not sure how ignoring the paranoia and perhaps even stoking it by failing to get even token concessions from the Indians redounds to our benefit and increases our prospects for success there.

But I am sure that if anyone could convince me, it would be Tellis and the other unexpected administration defenders, so I will reserve the right to revise and extend my remarks as I learn more from the area experts.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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