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Opinion: India’s hurt feelings

Is Obama too much the Pacific president and not enough the Indian Ocean president?

obama and manmohan singh
U.S. President Barack Obama (right) listen to India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh make a toast during a State Dinner at the White House, Nov. 24, 2009. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

BOSTON — It is ironic that while during the administration of former President George W. Bush much of the world complained that America was too overbearing. Today there is a growing perception among some countries that the administration of President Barack Obama is not paying enough attention to them. India is only the latest.

Indonesia and Australia felt slighted earlier this month when Obama cancelled his trip to the two countries — for the second time — on occasion of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Early on in the Obama administration there were complaints in Britain, for example, that Obama had returned the borrowed bust of Winston Churchill that Bush the younger had kept in the oval office. These complaints ignored the fact that all presidents make changes when they come to occupy the White House.

There were newspaper stories that tried to make the case that this was the end of a special relationship that Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt had formed in World War II. Later, a parliamentary foreign affairs committee announced that the special relationship between the two countries was indeed over. Nick Clegg, Britian’s new deputy prime minister, has said the same.

Although U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton only reiterated what had been since 1948 American policy over the Falkland Islands — i.e. that the United States hoped Britain and Argentina could work out their differences together — there was hue and cry in Britain that the U.S. was abandoning them, ignoring that America had been of considerable help sharing intelligence with Britain during the Falklands war in 1982.

While President Obama had taken steps to change the poisonous relationship with Russia that had marked the Bush years, and made overtures to the Muslim world in his landmark Cairo speech, Francois Heisbourg of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research said Obama had not shown the same sensitivity to symbolic gestures towards his friends in Europe. Obama had not shown up for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, for example.

Britain’s William Shawcross, as pro-American a political commentator as you are likely to find, said that “Obama seems kinder to his enemies than his friends.”

Europe senses that it is no longer at the center of the world stage any more, and that Obama is, as he himself says, the first Pacific president — born in the Pacific with a strategic eye looking westwards towards China.

Now it is India’s turn to complain that Obama is too much the Pacific president and not enough the Indian Ocean president. Whereas the Indian government is not officially complaining, what might be called the Indian foreign policy establishment of business leaders, strategic thinkers, journalists and former diplomats are.

The depth of that feeling emerged recently in Washington during a strategic dialogue conference held at the State Department. Americans heard complaints that the U.S. was not following through on the strategic relationship with India that former presidents Clinton and Bush had forged.