Susan withdraws, Delhi shudders

Washington, Dec. 14: "Setback" is too strong a word to describe the effect on Indo-US relations of Susan Rice's decision to have her name withdrawn from consideration as Barack Obama's nominee for secretary of state in his second presidential term.

But there is no doubt that Rice would have been a significant asset in advancing relations between Washington and New Delhi, had she got the job which is fourth in the line of succession to the presidency in the eventuality of a need to find a replacement in the White House in the middle of a regular four-year term.

Few Americans holding public office have been exposed to Indian sensitivities as much as Rice during the last two years when she was in contact every single day with Indians ' sometimes on weekends too, at times even during her travels ' since the day New Delhi took its seat in the UN Security Council on January 1, 2011. What is more, few others have responded with abundant understanding the way she has done.

She became Obama's permanent representative to the UN, a cabinet post, on January 22, 2009, just two days after the first African American occupied the White House in a historic election. The second youngest American to hold the UN job, hers was one of the first appointments that Obama announced after his election.

In July last year, after Mumbai was hit by a serial attack of terrorist bombs, the UN Security Council went into consultations on condemning the attack through a consensus statement by the council's President.

European members of the council, usual bleeding hearts, and some others wanted the condemnation to be accompanied by a sermon to India about its obligations to uphold human rights. These countries also wanted to urge New Delhi to show restraint after it became clear that cross-border elements from Pakistan had a role in the terrorist outrage.

India, which was a member of the Security Council, let it be known informally, but firmly, that it would have none of it. But the Europeans dug in their heels and the presidential statement from the council was caught in a deadlock.

It was Rice who resolved the deadlock, going back and forth between the dissenters and others and eventually getting a presidential statement which took into account India's firm objections: "The members of the Security Council reiterated their determination to combat all forms of terrorism, in accordance with its responsibilities under the Charter of the United Nations." There was no gratuitous advice to New Delhi on how to combat terrorism.

On that day when the Security Council came out in unequivocal sympathy with India, a council member repeated to this correspondent Rice's remark at her consultations with Europeans that India will never agree to have its hands tied over the attack on Mumbai and asked them what the council would look like if India rejected their position.

Two months later, there was a terrorist attack on Delhi High Court. This time, the Europeans and other bleeding hearts knew that it would be futile to resurrect the objections they had raised under similar circumstances in July.

So the Security Council quickly resolved that "any acts of terrorism are criminal and unjustifiable, regardless of their motivation, wherever, whenever and by whomsoever committed".

It will be Rice's legacy that India was treated at the UN on the same footing as the big powers when the country faced problems such as terrorism, although, of course, it would not have come about without robust resistance to the customary sermons by India's permanent mission to the UN.

An example of the Security Council's double standards on terrorism till its July statement on Mumbai was the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. A presidential statement on her tragic death said "the Security Council calls on all Pakistanis to exercise restraint and maintain stability in the country."

Whenever, something similar occurred in any of the Big 5, the permanent members of the council, it unequivocally condemned such incidents without any strings attached.

In the op-ed page of The Washington Post today, Rice wrote that she is "proud of the many successes of my tremendous team at the US Mission to the UN: saving countless civilians from slaughter in Libya, imposing the toughest sanctions ever on Iran and North Korea, steadfastly defending Israel's security and legitimacy, and helping midwife the birth of the world's newest nation, South Sudan".

Some of her successes, especially South Sudan, and a few others that she did not list, such as combating piracy globally, would not have been possible without her chemistry with India's permanent representative to the UN, Hardeep Singh Puri, which is widely known in the lobbies at the UN headquarters in New York.

Puri was president of the Security Council when some of the rare successes of the UN were recorded during Obama's first term when the US President delegated those challenges to his ambassador to the UN.

Had Rice become secretary of state, she would have benefited from, and followed up, on her unique exposure to another perennial challenge in India's foreign policy: Pakistan.

Rice often marvelled at an unusual India-Pakistan bonhomie at the UN in the last couple of years when Puri and his Pakistani counterpart, Abdullah Hussain Haroon, went together to tennis matches to encourage their compatriot players and otherwise demonstrated in the Security Council that the two rival states could work together.

Transacting business in any US administration is an interagency process, where one key arm of the US government has opportunities to provide valuable inputs even into decisions where it is not the lead author of those decisions.

The next Obama administration will have a new treasury secretary in place of Timothy Geithner, who spent his childhood in New Delhi and became an outspoken admirer of Pranab Mukherjee's long innings in government in matters of trade and finance.

Similarly, defence secretary Leon Panetta, who advanced a working relationship with his Indian counterpart much more than any of his predecessors, will leave soon. Rice's presence in Washington as secretary of state would have more than compensated for these changes from India's view.

Not that Indo-US relations are in any danger. There are no worries of any setbacks in Obama's second term, at least not for now. But it would have smoothened things to have someone at Foggy Bottom, the seat of the state department, who had a feel for India like what Rice developed during her stay at the UN.