Shadow Government

Why isn’t India buying American fighter jets?

India has decided not to buy American F-16's or F/A-18's for the biggest defense tender in its history -- a pending $10 billion-plus contract for 126 multi-role combat aircraft. Following field trials, it has instead shortlisted the Rafale, made by France's Dassault, and the Typhoon, produced by a European consortium. Skeptics of Indo-U.S. strategic partnership view this as yet another Indian snub to the United States, arguing that the promise of Indo-American entente that was to follow from the historic civilian-nuclear agreement of 2008 has proven hollow.

The charge is that American proponents of closer cooperation with India have oversold India's willingness or ability to partner with the United States. India is unreliable, they argue -- just look at its failure to enact liability legislation that would bring the 2008 civilian-nuclear agreement into force. For the skeptics, Indian foreign policy, rather than tilting in a more pro-American direction, remains guided by non-alignment and an abiding concern for strategic autonomy -- if not an outright hostility to the West, as in the bad old days of the Cold War.

While India's decision is certainly disappointing, this analysis is flawed.

First, the United States has a national interest in Indian strategic autonomy, because one important consequence of India's geopolitical ascent is the ballast it provides to an Asian order not subject to China's tutelage. From an American national interest perspective, it is vital that India retain strategic autonomy by growing its internal capabilities and building external partnerships with a range of important powers, including not just America but also Japan, South Korea, Australia, Indonesia, and European states.

The civilian-nuclear deal, advanced U.S. defense sales to India, technology-sharing, and other American initiatives have been designed to build Indian strength and promote Indian development. The mercantilistic idea that the ultimate goal of American policy towards India is creating a lucrative new market for American defense companies is not credible.

Second, India is not non-aligned, whatever the results of one defense sale. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh submitted his government to a no-confidence vote in 2008 over the nuclear deal with the United States -- risking the leadership of his coalition over the future of relations with the United States. India's military exercises more with America's armed forces than with any other, and the United States has emerged as a leading arms supplier to India, successfully selling it reconnaissance aircraft, transport aircraft, naval vessels, and other advanced platforms. Beyond the United States, India's growing set of partnerships are almost entirely with states along the Indo-Pacific littoral that fear the consequences of overweening Chinese power and seek to balance it.

India's double-digit annual defense budget increases, and India's emergence as the biggest arms importer in the world, aren't directed at the United States, or Europe, or Japan. They are undertaken with an eye on China first and Pakistan second. Yes, India's prime minister recently attended a BRICS summit -- though an Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman made clear beforehand that India vests more importance in the IBSA grouping (India, Brazil, South Africa) of developing democracies -- because they share common values. The BRICS, of course, do not.

Third, it's worth considering the perspective from New Delhi on the aircraft sale. Despite considerable progress in recent years, the United States historically has not been what Indians would call a reliable supplier of military hardware. To the contrary: It has sanctioned India repeatedly, cutting off sales of military platforms, technologies, and spare parts over several different periods. The United States has also provided advanced weaponry to India's key rivals (Pakistan since 1954, China during the 1980s).

Politically, an Indian government under frequent attack for moving closer to Washington stands to benefit from insulating itself against yet more charges of favoritism towards America by buying U.S. fighters. Another core political objective in this context is to avoid the kind of corruption scandals that have marred previous Indian defense purchases (most notably the Bofors scandal of the 1980s, which brought down an Indian government).  The possibility for a potential scandal over the role of American political pressure should India buy American is a charge the country's political masters are keen to avoid, and are now immune from.

A related political factor is the what my Indian colleague Dhruva Jaishankar describes as "the general drift" in U.S.-India relations, which "has only increased both countries' resolve to drive harder bargains. This period of drift was initiated by the Obama administration's early missteps on China and Afghanistan and has persisted despite the president's visit to India last November as a consequence of political developments in both capitals." The underperformance of the bilateral relationship over the past two years is manifested in this week's decision on the aircraft tender.

Fourth, India's decision not to shortlist the American combat aircraft was a technical determination. India's existing fleet of Russian and French aircraft, and the ground-based support infrastructure for air operations, are not closely compatible with American combat aircraft. Some argue that European fighter aircraft are more advanced than older models of U.S. combat aircraft; it is reported that several performed better in flight trials over Indian territory than their U.S. competitors. The American planes are certainly more expensive, which matters in a country with more poor people than in all of Sub-Saharan Africa. The Indian cabinet will make the ultimate political decision on the tender.

This is no defense of India's decision. The great benefit of a U.S. company securing the contract for 126 multi-role combat aircraft wasn't the immediate benefit of a lucrative defense sale. It was the establishment of a long-term supply and training relationship between the air forces of the world's biggest democracies, great powers with the capability to fundamentally shape security order in Asia over the coming century.

India will do fine with its Rafales or Typhoons. But it's a shame longer-range, strategic considerations didn't seem to drive this decision. Leaders in Beijing and Islamabad are probably smiling, even as those of us in Washington are not.

Shadow Government

What do the personnel moves (and the reporting on them) tell us about Team Obama?

I am tardy on commenting on things my Shadow Gov colleagues have already commented wisely upon, but as I was wont to tell my dissertation advisors back in the day, "better late than never."

Some thoughts on the security team shuffle:

  • The Crocker appointment is good news for everyone concerned (except the Bush School in Texas A&M, which loses a fine Dean).President Obama is to be congratulated on cajoling Crocker back into the diplomatic fray. However, unlike my blogpost which is only a few days tardy, this move is probably a year-and-a-half overdue. Obama did his Afghanistan policy no favors by leaving Ambassador Eikenberry in his post so long even though it was evident that Eikenberry (albeit a fine patriot who has served honorably) was not able to forge the constructive relationship with either the Afghan or the coalition military partners that the job demanded. For all of the reporting on Obama's Afghan policy, I have never heard a satisfactory answer to why Obama stuck with Eikenberry as long as he did.
  • The Panetta appointment is a reasonable one. It is high time a Democrat held the post, and Panetta more than checks the partisan Democrat box. His strong suit is budget, and the fiscal challenges at DoD are daunting. His appointment confirms what Obama has been signaling for quite some time: the administration views Defense as a promising place to make deeper cuts. That is worrisome, but it is reality; elections have consequences. My concerns are twofold. First, as Tom Mahnken pointed out, the system is facing some very serious civil-military relations challenges. It is not clear to me that Panetta has the background or experience to deftly handle that part of the job; the most successful Democratic SecDef I can think of, Bill Perry under President Clinton, had extensive DoD experience before he took the top job. Second, for all his strengths, Panetta is not a strategist (unlike some of the other names that were floated, such as Richard Danzig, John Hamre, or Michelle Flournoy -- and unlike his predecessor). This means that the strategy deficit that FP colleague Tom Ricks earlier noted just got a wee bit bigger. It probably doesn't help that one of the most able strategists in the administration just got moved, which brings me to....
  • The Petraeus appointment leaves me a bit puzzled.Why move your best strategist away from a line function to an advisory one, and one that is by tradition supposed to be scrupulously neutral on policy? For that matter, if you are insistent on moving him from line to staff, why not move him to Chairman of the JCS, the position he is most qualified for? Of course, I know the answers to these questions: the CIA has a major and growing operational role and in that respect Petraeus will likely excel; the White House wants Petraeus on a tight leash and feels that in the CJCS position he would be to Obama what Colin Powell was to Bill Clinton, a thorn in the flesh; at CIA, Petraeus is constrained from calling out the administration if policy errors lead to disasters in Afghanistan, Iraq, and/or Libya. All in all, this is a shrewd move that is optimized for President Obama's 2012 electoral strategy. How good it will be for American national security strategy is still to be determined.

Speaking of national security strategy...what about the remarkable Ryan Lizza article that indelibly imprinted the label on the Obama doctrine, "leading from behind"? I found it revealing, but not in the ways that Lizza probably intended:

  • The article is in the well-worn tradition of credulous puff-pieces about President Obama's national security acumen, but even if the reporter is boosterish, if he is honest (as Lizza appears to be), he can't help but make implicit critiques.For instance, Lizza promotes the new paradigm of Obama national security as "consequentialism," a pragmatism that transcends old realist vs. idealist labels. The problem is, however, that even on their own terms the consequences of Obama's national security efforts have been dodgy -- a fact that Lizza's article notes in passing. The Administration came in promising to rebalance U.S. priorities with a stronger focus in Asia and a lighter focus in the Middle East. Yet America's position in Asia is no better than what was inherited from Bush in 2008 and, by intervening in the Libyan civil war, the administration has committed the United States even more intensively and militarily in the broader Middle East.To be sure, the administration is resolutely marching to the exits in Iraq, but what have been the consequences of that thus far? For a strategy of consequentialism, the piece is remarkably light on assessing consequences.
  • To me the strongest take away from the article is the apparent irrelevance of Vice President Biden. I have commented on Biden's strange absence from the foreign policy stage before and since that time he has apparently given one desultory press interview focused on foreign policy. Perhaps he has been a more vital player behind the scenes, but if so that fact escaped Lizza's extensive reporting. Indeed, junior State Department staffer Jared Cohen comes off as more consequential than Vice-President Biden, whom Lizza mentions exactly once: as being on distribution for a presidential memo. 
  • Speaking of that memo, Lizza's treatment of it struck a discordant note to my former staffer's ears. Lizza describes it thus:

On August 12, 2010, Obama sent a five-page memorandum called "Political Reform in the Middle East and North Africa" to Vice-President Joseph Biden, Clinton, Gates, Donilon, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the other senior members of his foreign-policy team...the President wrote. He noted ...Obama's analysis showed a desire to balance interests and ideals. ... Obama wrote. ...Obama instructed his staff ... He told his advisers to ... He also wrote that..."

Inside the ellipses was all the specific content of the memo, which presumably was classified yet handed to Lizza so he could quote it verbatim and at length. I have no objections to the content, and I understand why the White House leaked it to Lizza. The memo gives the unmistakable impression that the President was completely on top of events in the Middle East (ahead of them, actually), despite the lurching and reactive flow of actual administration activity (not to mention consequences) of the past four months.

What intrigues me is what leaps out when you look at the verbs connecting the ellipses. Lizza is telling us that the president sat down, drafted a five page terms of reference for a major regional strategy review, and then gave it to his national security team much the way a professor would hand out a demanding take home exam to his top graduate students.  It could have happened that way and, if it did, that would be a remarkable and newsworthy fact worth highlighting.  It would show a presidential-level devotion to staff work not seen since President Carter reviewed the scheduling of the White House tennis courts.  I do not know any seasoned White House hand who thinks that is how it happened, but if it did, surely Lizza should explore its significance more.

Instead, what happened, I am willing to bet, is that on August 12, Obama signed what in Clinton's day used to be called a Presidential Review Directive -- a terms of reference drafted by the NSC staff with input from the interagency and then turned into a presidential tasker to be sent back to the NSC staff and the interagency to execute.  The NSC staff can on their own authority direct the interagency to study something, but when it is really important it helps to have the big boss signature on it to overcome bureaucratic inertia. Certainly President Obama read the terms of reference, probably it reflected his strategic guidance, possibly he tweaked it to reflect more precisely that guidance, but it is a stretch to say he "drafted" it. White House staffers will make that stretch, but seasoned reporters usually unstretch it when they translate it for their readers.  Lizza passes it along in its fully stretched form.

This is more a critique of Lizza than of the White House staffers who tried to spin him. And, to be fair, Lizza is no worse and probably a bit better than many of the correspondents reporting on the Obama White House. But in their zeal to portray sympathetically a president with whom they sympathize, I think the reporters are doing their hero a disservice. The White House flacks are trying to make their boss look as good as possible, a perfectly understandable spin effort.  Usually, sympathetic reporters will tone down the spin effort so what the readers actually see is an apparently balanced but largely positive account.  Instead, Lizza and others seem to pass the spin right along. To mix in a different analogy: The Obama people put their TV makeup on but Lizza didn't filter it through the television screen so what you get in natural light is a garish make-up job. 

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