As Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton stood at a Dec. 1 press conference in Chicago to announce her nomination as secretary of state, they promised the country, and the world, a much-needed push toward the restoration of world order.
It would be, Mr. Obama said, “a new beginning—a new dawn of American leadership to overcome the challenges of the 21st century.”
Except, perhaps, in the one place where order is needed most.
The terrorist attacks in Mumbai that killed more than 170 people have rendered instantly quaint the president-elect’s blueprint to use aggressive diplomacy to engineer a stable relationship between nuclear-armed neighbors India and Pakistan, and to formulate a regional approach to winning the war in Afghanistan.
Furthermore, Pakistan and India experts say, Mr. Obama’s plan to invest billions of dollars in non-military resources in Pakistan is endangered by the economic crisis at home, and by Pakistan’s less-than-sympathetic status following the attacks.
After running as the antidote to Mr. Bush’s foreign policy, it’s not even clear anymore whether Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton will be able to do anything significantly different from the Bush administration in the world’s most intense hot spot.
“They are going to have to run to catch up with events,” said Stephen Cohen, the author of The Idea of Pakistan and a prominent scholar at the Brookings Institution on issues relating to the subcontinent.
Mr. Cohen said that the attack in Mumbai “makes it harder to pursue the kind of policy that he had conceived of, which is support the Pakistanis, work on the Indians to help us support the Pakistanis so we can be better off in Afghanistan. I think from a Pakistani and Indian point of view, forget about it.
“The Indians,” he said, “are not going to want to normalize with Pakistan now, not for a long time.”
Somewhat ironically, given the largely rapturous international reaction to the election of the cosmopolitan and internationalist Mr. Obama, his diplomatic options for dealing with both Pakistan and India may be especially limited.
Officially, there is no shortage of goodwill. In a Dec. 2 appearance on Larry King Live, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said: “I think there’s a world romance with Obama. And we all in Pakistan—throughout the world there’s a romance to Obama, and we are looking forward to working with him.” He also called Mrs. Clinton “an excellent choice” for secretary of state.
But there is also the lingering specter of Mr. Obama’s remarks during the campaign—which drew a sharp rebuke at the time from Mrs. Clinton—that he would pursue “high-value terrorist targets” inside Pakistan if the Pakistanis failed to do so. Since then, militarily effective American incursions into Pakistan—denounced regularly by the Pakistani government—have grown enormously unpopular there, and have provided India with a potential rationale for launching a unilateral response to the Mumbai attacks.
“I didn’t think it was a good move at the time,” said Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I think he is paying a price for it just off the bat in terms of his diplomatic relationship with the Pakistanis. It would have been much more positive if he didn’t say it.”
Mr. Obama’s political outreach to India won’t be much simpler.
The Bush administration saw the nation as a counterweight to China in the region and pushed through a controversial deal, independent of recognized nonproliferation treaties, that permitted civilian nuclear trade between the U.S. and India. (Mr. Obama initially opposed the deal on the grounds that it gave India a “blank check” that could encourage an arms race in the region. He eventually supported the bill, which passed in October, when some of his restrictions, including measures meant to deter stockpiling, were implemented.)
But the president-elect’s restrained posture on India was perceived by the country’s political leadership as a snub, according to India experts.