Foreign Policy | June 12, 2009
By Parag Khanna
Having an inept president can do more to rejuvenate democracy than years of MTV "Rock the Vote" campaigns.
Certainly that is the case in the United States, where a combination of Bush fatigue and Obama's inspiration led to an American version of the Arab world's "Enough!" campaigns. In Iran as well, a vibrant political debate is taking place surrounding the current election, doing more for democracy than any covert U.S. funding for Iranian civil society ever could.
So, can Obama's "change" express come to South-Central Asia, a neighborhood even tougher than the Mideast?
Maybe. But India, for one, raises tough questions about the thesis. Over the past decade, massive outsourcing and the lure of a civilian nuclear agreement and strategic alliance made the world's largest democracy also one of the world's most pro-George Bush countries. Today the big question in New Delhi is why Barack Obama is apparently snubbing India, not how he will allow it to discover its better self.
The answer is obvious: Pakistan. Ground zero in the "war on terror" that no longer speaks its name, Pakistan and the United States are finally accepting that the former, not Afghanistan, is the region's tipping-point state and strategic fault line. As Pakistan goes, so goes the neighborhood.
Obama has generally continued the policy of Predator drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas, though reduced their frequency in recent weeks while the Pakistani military has shifted focus to the Swat Valley. No doubt the State Department's clever SMS operation (text "SWAT" to donate $5) has raised America's charitable giving to the UNHCR relief effort, but the Pakistani military's lack of preparedness for the inevitable crisis of 2 million refugees and internally displaced people has only provided yet another fertile recruiting ground for Islamist militants who are rushing to provide aid in the camps. It's as if both the United States and Pakistan forgot how and where they recruited the anti-Soviet mujahideen in the 1980s.
Pakistanis are starting to play America's game not because of Obama, but because suicide attacks at Lahore police stations and Islamabad and Peshawar hotels have given them the biggest shock since the country was severed in two with the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. President Asif Ali Zardari himself says his nation is "in a fight for its very survival."
The Obama effect in Afghanistan has been similarly hard to pin down. During the U.S. campaign, President Hamid Karzai was a scapegoat; now his U.S.-backed reelection is all but a sure thing. A controversial new strategy to "surge" about 20,000 more troops into the country has yet to be tested, but Obama's reputation in the country surely hinges on its success.
Overall, it is clearly events in the Mideast that have us speaking about an "Obama effect," but that does not rule out a change of course in South-Central Asia. Indeed, in the Arab world, U.S. presidents often have to choose sides between leaders and their people. Today across Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, however, there is a unique domestic symmetry Obama can take advantage of, crafting policies that enjoy broad support, such as focusing on civilian reconstruction activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan and maintaining strong economic and strategic ties with India. We have yet to see if the Obama effect can soothe South-Central Asia. But we can always have hope.