February 24, 2020
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Good Riddance, 'Ms Robinhood'

Good Riddance, 'Ms Robinhood'

AMERICAN Assistant Secretary of State Robin Raphel has bid a churlish farewell to India as she relinquished charge of the South Asia Bureau. That I enjoy dubious and reluctant popularity with her is interesting. But that is not the provocation for this article. Let me, as she said in her recent interview to India Abroad News Service, pull rank on her and say that I would normally not take notice of an interview given by a middle-ranking official of the State Department. But her fulminations against the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the Indian civil service deserve a response.

The points she made are: (1) the MEA had become largely irrelevant in the arena of international diplomacy; (2) while the MEA is being left behind, economic people and others, who are not stuck in old ways of thinking, are setting the agenda in India; (3) the MEA fantasises about the security relationship between the US and Pakistan; (4) there was sustained conspiracy by the MEA in New Delhi and the entrenched South Asia Office in the US State Department to have her removed from her post as assistant secretary of state for South Asia; (5) she succeeded in increasing and enhancing the profile of South Asia in US foreign policy; (6) the MEA had undertaken a concerted campaign to discredit her in the eyes of President Bill Clinton and the US administration; (7) the Indian media had indulged in "gutter press stuff" about her, mainly due to the MEA; (8) despite MEA officials pulling rank on her to prevent her from meeting the Indian prime minister and foreign minister, she managed to strike a rapport with the Indian people, politicians and intelligentsia; (9) the former deputy chief of the US embassy in Delhi,

Kenneth Brill, was also a part of the State Department conspiracy against her; (10) it was only because of her that there was some focus in US foreign policy on South Asia because US priorities otherwise were Russia, China and Bosnia; (11) she worked very hard to remain impartial between India and Pakistan, but was misunderstood.

Let me deal with Ms Raphel's accusations in perspective. Her charge that our MEA has become largely irrelevant in the arena of international diplomacy is a value judgement based entirely on her frustration over it not toeing her line on regional issues. She just could not comprehend the fact that Indian reactions to certain orientations in Washington's South Asia policies would be based on New Delhi's objective assessment of its interests and would be structured on the basis of India's sovereign discretion. There was a peculiar streak of assertiveness on her part. "India should get its act together, must not be paranoid about Pakistan", etc, were mantras she chanted when interacting with MEA officials. Perhaps, she would have been more accurate if she said India was a somewhat inconvenient area falling within her charge. The MEA's relevance or irrelevance in international diplomacy can be assessed by the people of India, not by Madam Raphel.

Her assertion that it is "the economic people and others not stuck in the old mindset (who) are driving the agenda in India" is an exercise in selective wishful thinking. The MEA has been an integral and significant player in the reorientation of India's foreign policy, especially in the implementation of its foreign economic policy. Raphel's attempt to differentiate between sections of the Indian government is a futile attempt at currying favour with the economic establishment as opposed to the political establishment dealing with Indian policies. She should realise that, as in the US, in India there are differing views but ultimately government policies are a consequence of harmonising these differences. If ministries work at cross purposes, the government itself will not be able to function. Whatever its limitations, the Indian government has been dealing adequately in terms of its people's interests with a world in ferment.

Then there is the accusation that the MEA fantasises about the US-Pakistan security relationship. Rather than fantasy, it is a clear historical memory and the capacity to observe contemporaneous undercurrents of US-Pak defence cooperation which prompts New Delhi to factual, incontrovertible conclusions about the nature of US-Pak security ties. One could list a series of specific trends and events, some of which have occurred even during Raphel's tenure in the State Department which substantiate India's views. It is a different issue that we prefer to come to conclusions on the basis of facts rather than Raphel's interpretations and formalistic explanations.

That there was some sort of a sustained conspiracy in the MEA to have her removed from the State Department is pure fantasy. We couldn't care less whether she was there or not. Does she presume that just her removal would have changed US policies towards India? One sees a touch of megalomania and paranoia here. No foreign ministry would be interested in sustaining or removing a middle-level official in another government in the hope that it would affect policy. Ms Raphel should realise that from 1994 onwards, since Strobe Talbott came to India and Frank Wisner took over as ambassador, her role was very marginal vis-a-vis India.

She claims to have succeeded in enhancing the profile of South Asia in US foreign policy. Neither as foreign secretary nor as an observer of Indo-US relations did I see South Asia becoming a higher priority in US foreign policy over the last six years. The only person who marginally succeeded in focusing the US State Department's attention on India was Wisner.

Raphel's complaint that the MEA undertook a concerted campaign to discredit her in the eyes of the US administration does not hold water. We certainly questioned her peculiar views on Kashmir and Indo-Pak ties which were detrimental to India's interests and Indo-US relations. She has only herself to blame for this. No responsible diplomat consistently tries to exacerbate misunderstandings between his/her country and another country. As for her claim that the MEA's machinations resulted in the Indian media writing "gutter press stuff" about her, it is an insult to the India's vibrant and free press. If after serving in the US embassy in India for a number of years she thinks that a government department can make journalists write consistently about an individual in a critical strain, God bless her. I am sure the Indian media will only come to further conclusions about her being afflicted by chronic misjudgement.

Ms Raphel also complains about MEA officials pulling rank and not allowing her to meet our foreign minister and prime minister. I would like to know whether the State Department would allow a senior joint secretary or additional secretary in the MEA to call on the US president and secretary of state. Even Indian cabinet ministers normally do not get such access in the US. Perhaps Ms Raphel was spoilt by her sojourn in Pakistan, where US officials have easy access to the highest authorities.

Besides, she seems to believe that since she was an official of a "Great Power" in what is now a unipolar world, she should have been given special privileges. We certainly thought that she should interact with India at the appropriate hierarchical level. There is a validity in this approach, especially with even such hierarchical requirements not being respected in Washington. It would be worthwhile finding out how many times Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright have met the Indian ambassador since 1992.

I should not be commenting on the accusations against Brill, but I must say that in my judgement he was one of the most competent and successful US diplomats in India. He had a "problem-solving" rather than "tutorial-giving" approach to Indo-US relations. Ms Raphel could have learnt much from him. She did not.

The last two points mentioned in her interview—that it was because of her that there was some South Asian focus in US foreign policy and that she worked very hard to be impartial between India and Pakistan—are irrelevant. The focus of US foreign policy on a particular region depends on considered inter-departmental and multi-disciplinary assessment of US interests at any given point of time. Whenever she tried to focus US foreign policy on India, it mostly created tensions. One would much rather not have had the kind of focus which she tried to structure. As for her working very hard to fashion an impartial policy between India and Pakistan, both countries will judge her on the basis of results of the policy stances she articulated. One does not question the fact that she might have worked very hard. But the point is it did not show any concrete results as far as India is concerned. Her sweeping, malevolent accusations against the MEA can only be described as the boiling out of her accumulated frustrations regarding India, her claims about liking its people notwithstanding. Her departure augurs well for Indo-US relations.

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