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HOLMES: India should be policy linchpin

- - Thursday, March 5, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama repeatedly charged that then-President Bush had "alienated" America from the rest of the world. He accused Mr. Bush of bullying allies and suggested that he would do a better job of reaching out to old friends and finding new ones.

Certainly, many of America's allies welcomed Mr. Obama's election, but at least one country hoped less for change than continuity. That country is India, with whom Mr. Bush engineered a civil nuclear cooperation deal and expanded counterterrorism and defense ties. He also succeeded in separating U.S. relations with India and with Pakistan.

By strengthening ties with India, Mr. Bush enhanced America's strategic position in Asia. The question is: Will Mr. Obama continue and build on that relationship?

He is not off to a good start. During the campaign, Mr. Obama suggested that the United States should help resolve the Kashmir issue. This statement did not go down well in New Delhi. It raised the prospect of escalating violence in Kashmir as militants would try to influence the outcome of an international agreement. Thankfully, Mr. Obama as president has not repeated this campaign statement.

U.S. experts on India are also buzzing that the Obama administration may be backing away from Mr. Bush's emphasis on the importance of our common democratic values. This would be a huge mistake. Democracies don't agree on everything, but at least they share broad common values. These shared values undergird U.S.-Indian cooperation not only in combating terrorism, but in dealing with other issues, such as Afghanistan, the rise of China, economic development and military arms.

To continue this progress in U.S.-India relations, Mr. Obama should follow the recommendations of my colleague at the Heritage Foundation, Lisa Curtis, who argues for not only keeping our current commitments to India, but expanding them in concrete ways.

She suggests that we keep the common values agenda and expand upon it by encouraging India's permanent involvement in what has been the trilateral U.S.- Japan-Australia dialogue. The Australians have backed away on India's involvement, and renewed U.S. leadership will be required to get things back on track.

The U.S. also should expand cooperation with India on intelligence and homeland security. Much has been done, but we can do a lot more. We need to break down barriers to sharing intelligence by raising the level and frequency of our intelligence exchanges and diplomatic interactions, exchanging ideas on best practices through the U.S.-Indian Counterterrorism Joint Working Group, which has met too infrequently since its inception in 2000. New ways should be found to organize and streamline intelligence-gathering, and more thought should be given to finding common ground on the ideological challenge of extremism.

The Obama administration also should step up military cooperation with India. New Delhi still gets 80 percent of its arms from Russia, a dependence the Indians are increasingly eager to shed. The U.S. has sold India six C-130-J Hercules military transport aircraft, but Washington is still seen as an unreliable supplier of military equipment. We should ease restrictions on military sales to India and explore the possibility of helping India develop land-based laser defenses against ballistic missiles.

Another area where cooperation could be stepped up is on Afghanistan. India is a major donor there, but Pakistani suspicions of its motivations hamper its effectiveness. One way to assuage Pakistani fears and increase regional cooperation would be to host high-level joint consultations with NATO, India and Pakistan on Afghanistan.

Perhaps most importantly, the U.S. needs to show India that it is serious about holding Pakistan accountable for stopping terrorists on its territory. Pakistan took some steps to close down the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist group responsible for the Mumbai attacks last year, but it has not done enough. The administration should condition further military aid to Pakistan on its progress in uprooting terrorist organizations inside Pakistan, including in tribal areas.

In return we should expect some changes from India as well. India's votes at the U.N. disagree with the U.S. position more than 70 percent of the time, which is too high for a friend. At some point, we should expect India to take on a more responsible posture on reform, democracy-building and economic freedom at the United Nations. We should expect more cooperation from India in countering Iran's nuclear ambitions

Areas of disagreement could be reduced if we made progress on all these fronts. The Bush administration left Mr. Obama a strong foundation on which to build an even better relationship with India.

Let's hope the president doesn't do what he accused Mr. Bush of doing — alienating a potentially valuable strategic partner to America.

Kim Holmes, a former assistant secretary of state, is a vice president at the Heritage Foundation (Heritage.org) and author of "Liberty's Best Hope: American Leadership for the 21st Century" (2008).