Not even Wikileaks can help: Obama’s inexplicable diplomacy in South Asia

Below is an essay that I wrote this week for the electronic journal The Diplomat. The title above is my original title. The journal changed it in a way that made it look like I endorsed Wikileaks’ illegal activities. The editor agreed to change that title and it is now called “When Wikileaks meets U.S. policy” on The Diplomat’s site.


Not even Wikileaks can help: Obama’s inexplicable diplomacy in South Asia

As I write this, much of the international media is consumed with WikiLeaks’ gradual publication of a quarter-million US diplomatic reports. Why? Well first off, everyone likes to be let in on a secret, and if that secret involves acronyms like CIA, RAW, MI6, or ISI, the sexiness quotient skyrockets. That’s more or less just human nature. But the reports also provide grist for media publications—especially European ones—always eager to spread some dirt about the Americans. London’s Guardian, Madrid’s El Pais, and Paris’s Le Monde were fairly salivating as the documents’ release date approached, and wrote with near-orgasmic prose once publication began. Their behavior, too, was more or less predictable.

But the whirlwind around this batch of WikiLeaks leaks seems to point to a deeper concern among the public, one that stems from the increasing distance between the international reality they see and what their leaders describe to them. In recent years, the US public has had to hear its leaders repeatedly tell Americans that black was white: President Clinton said he didn’t know Monica (in the biblical sense) or who attacked the USS Cole in Yemen; President George W. Bush said Saddam was a WMD threat and then that there was no insurgency in Iraq; and President Barack Obama has said we are winning in Afghanistan, jihad is self-improvement (like stopping alcohol consumption) and that Indonesia is a model of sectarian tolerance. The latter is a particularly remarkable black-is-white moment—there have been times in Indonesia in recent years when you probably could have turned off your car lights and driven safely at night by the illumination provided by burning Christian churches.

This sort of regular and routine deceit has increased the suspicion of Americans—and I’d bet the suspicion of other nations’ publics, too—that they are being lied to about the conduct of governmental affairs. As a result, Americans seem to have become ever more eager to examine illegally acquired and disclosed “secret” information in the hope of finding out what’s really going on.

Obama’s recent diplomatic trip through Asia—and especially his visit to India—is a very good example of an exercise so counterintuitive to the average observer, and so counterproductive to US interests, that one can only assume the real goal of the sojourn has intentionally been buried deep in highly classified messages not meant to be seen by the average citizen.

Preparing to leave Washington as the US-led war effort in Afghanistan is verging on collapse, Obama made clear that he wouldn’t visit Pakistan. Whatever one thinks of Pakistan’s track record as an ally, the truth is that the logistical viability of the US-NATO Afghan war effort depends on Pakistan keeping open overland supply routes from Karachi and Peshawar into Afghanistan. It also depends on Pakistan’s military doing something to hurt al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in the border area, or at least not doing much to help them. These two facts alone, one would think, would have merited a day’s visit to Islamabad to protect vital US interests. So why didn’t they? I can’t think of a reason.

Once in India, Obama behaved as if the nature of the Pakistan-India relationship was comparable with that of the US-Canada relationship, with just a few more rough patches. Apparently unaware of what can only be described as the paranoia and zero-sum approach with which each nation assesses the other, the oblivious Obama called for “progress” on the Kashmir conflict, probably leaving both New Delhi and Islamabad wondering whose ox was to be gored to afford progress.

But after this opening bit of even-handedness, Obama tilted toward India with reckless abandon. He called for greater Indo-US economic, military and nuclear cooperation; praised India—but not Pakistan—for its counter-terrorism efforts; recommended new contracts between India’s military and US arms manufacturers; and urged the expansion of India’s expensive but doomed commitment in Afghanistan. Obama finished up by unequivocally endorsing a seat for India on the UN Security Council. (Imagine the questions and comments Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Kiyani will face from his corps commanders at their next meeting.)

So one must again ask: Why were all of these things on Obama’s New Delhi script? At this moment in history it hardly seems in the interests of the United States to tell Pakistan that its place as a US ally ends when the Afghan war is lost, and yet this is exactly what Obama was effectively doing. Likewise, he signalled Washington’s willingness to join Israel in helping to qualitatively improve India’s military capabilities, while encouraging New Delhi to continue and expand its presence in Afghanistan, which will do nothing but increase Pakistan’s perception that its security demands that it ally itself with forces bent on restoring the Taliban’s Islamic emirate. (Another anomaly is why Obama thinks long-term Indo-US relations will benefit from pushing India into a greater Afghan commitment when he knows—as documented in Bob Woodward’s recent book, Obama’s Wars—that the United States and NATO have lost the Afghan war and that Washington will depart and leave India to its own devices.)

Each of these US positions will, of course, be seen by Pakistan’s generals as deepening the strategic threat posed by India. And if driving forward Pakistan’s paranoia over US support for India’s aspirations for regional hegemony wasn’t enough, Obama’s championing of a Security Council seat for India and offering to strengthen New Delhi’s military will have been seen as a threat by Beijing.

To top it all off, the India visit will have done Obama no good at all in the Muslim world. With many Muslims already viewing the United Nations as an imperialistic tool that the “Christian West” uses to advance its and Israel’s interests, Obama has put the US government on record as approving a Security Council seat for polytheistic Hindu India. With no “Islamic” Security Council seat mentioned by Obama (or indeed any other major world leader), the Muslim world will continue to believe that the UN is evolving in a markedly anti-Islamic direction. Obama’s praise for India’s democratic development and societal tolerance, meanwhile, will strike Muslims as signifying Washington’s satisfaction with an Indian society that positions Muslims as second-class citizens who lag significantly behind in education, income, life expectancy and access to higher education and government employment, and who also are confronted by a limited but virulent anti-Muslim Hindu nationalist movement.

The US and Indian media have trumpeted the business contracts resulting from Obama’s visit—it’s said they’ll yield 50,000 US jobs (not enough to make even a small dent in US unemployment)—but beyond that achievement there seems nothing but downsides for the United States: a fully alienated Pakistan, likely to increase support for the Taliban; a dicey bet on great economic returns from friendship with an India plagued by corruption; an enduring and resentful underclass of Hindus and Muslims; numerous domestic insurgencies beyond that in Kashmir; and an offended China at a time when the US economy is dependent on Chinese loans for debt-funding.

All of which brings us back to the public’s interest in WikiLeaks’ documents and other illicitly acquired and published ‘secret’ materials. Could Obama really have gone to India to intentionally achieve such a long list of negative results?

In an attempt to reconcile the contrast between the obvious negative reality of the India visit based on the information available to the public, and Washington’s description of it as having yielded stunning results, one is faced with only two explanations: (1) the real purpose, goals, and accomplishments of Obama’s visit are secret or (2) Obama and his lieutenants are singularly incompetent in designing and conducting a foreign policy that serves near- and long-term US interests.

Frankly, I’m leaning toward the latter. But I suppose it’s at least possible that some time in the future the maestro of WikiLeaks—if he’s not in prison—will steal and publish US or Indian government documents that show how the visit was actually a brilliant substantive success.

Until then, though, we’ll have to wait and see if, as Washington now says, black really is white.


Michael F. Scheuer is the former head of the CIA’s Bin Laden Unit and best-selling author of Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terrorism (Potomac Books, 2004).

Author: Michael F. Scheuer

Michael F. Scheuer worked at the CIA as an intelligence officer for 22 years. He was the first chief of its Osama bin Laden unit, and he helped create its rendition program, which he ran for 40 months. He is an American blogger, historian, foreign policy critic, and political analyst.