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Not like good old Bush

The Obama administration's priority in South Asia is Afghanistan, not India, says Fareed Zakaria, a foreign policy expert and one of the most prominent Indian Americans in an interview with Hindustan Times.

delhi Updated: Nov 22, 2009 02:49 IST

Fareed Zakaria is the author of several books including The Future of Freedom, which was a New York Times bestseller. He has been listed among the 100 leading public intellectuals in the world by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines. He was editor of the journal Foreign Policy. The editor of Newsweek International and host of the CNN show Fareed Zakaria GPS was in India last week to meet with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the eve of his state visit to the US.

What are your thoughts on the importance of this (Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s) visit?

I think this is a very important visit. There are two factors here: One, the Obama team is different from the Bush team. For Bush, India was an overriding strategic issue. For Obama, it’s not the same... Two, the dominant issue for the Obama administration in South Asia is Afghanistan. That makes them in a strange way sympathetic to Pakistan’s conception of what the problems in this area are.

You’re from Mumbai. What was your first reaction when 26/11 happened?

My first reaction was to call my mother, who has an office in the Taj. Luckily she was out that day. What it revealed to me beyond terrorism is that in India you still don’t have a modern police force. They were hapless, ill prepared and disorganized.

These police forces are not even police forces. They are collections of people who have been given patronage jobs, who are meant to go around neighbourhoods shaking down people and taking bribes. We’re now expecting them to do something different, which is to function like a real police force.

Do you think 26/11 actually had any lasting impact at the international level?

At an international level it has solidified the understanding that Pakistan remains a deep source of problems relating to terrorism. Even right after 9/11 people were not aware of Pakistan’s role in supporting the Taliban. This understanding doesn’t mean it’s easy to do something about it, because Pakistan is like the bandit who comes into your house and says I’m going to hold you up and if you object I’m going to blow my brains all over your carpet. The Pakistan military says you have to listen to us because otherwise the jihadis will take over the country.

You interviewed Hamid Gul (former ISI chief) after that. What was that like?

I had actually met Hamid Gul when I was in Islamabad earlier. To hear him give voice to these very strange conspiracy theories about how neocons and the Mossad were behind 9/11… gave a window into the inner workings in Pakistan.

It is important to emphasise whenever anyone says all this that it is fundamentally in India’s and the US’ interest to have a stable, healthy, strong Pakistan. That all these dysfunctions are detrimental to Indian interests. A stable, prosperous, confident Pakistan would be a much better neighbour to deal with.

Do you see AfPak stabilizing anytime soon?

Afghanistan is a country that is going to be very hard to stabilize. People say it is by nature decentralized but the more important issue is that it has been so unstable for the last 30-35 years. People say we should return to the old tribal structure. What tribal structure? All those things have been eroded.

Pakistan at some level does seem to believe America will one day leave. In that circumstance they don’t want an Afghanistan dominated by India. It is to its advantage to keep Afghanistan on edge, and that means having some connection to militants who have the potential to keep it unstable.

It’s difficult to see it settling down dramatically. But you can’t throw your hands up.

Is US going to draw down its involvement (in Afghanistan)?

I don’t believe so. I think the debate about troops in Afghanistan is a legitimate debate. I don’t think people should view those of us who do not believe you need massive numbers of extra troops there as wanting to leave Afghanistan. There is a fundamental question of whether in an area like Afghanistan, introducing more foreign troops will improve the situation or exacerbate the resistance from a local population that does not like rule from afar.

I believe securing the population centers and leaving the countryside to find its order might be the best solution. If the Taliban wants to take over those remote valleys and villages, let them.

About India…you’ve always been an optimist. Do you think your optimism is perhaps excessive?

I don’t think so. In the West, people look at infrastructure and tear their hair out. Or they compare it to China. The truth of the matter is very simple. India, with all its problems, is the second fastest growing country in the world. I don’t believe in the arrogance of some Indian politicians who say India will overtake China. Being the second fastest growing economy in the world is not so bad.

I come back to India often, but at intervals. So it’s almost like I’m getting a series of snapshots. And every time I come back, things are better. I’ve been away from India for 25 years. For the first 12 or 13, the snapshot was the same every year. Now, every time I come back, it’s almost like it’s a different country.

What about internal security problems and issues like Maoism and religious intolerance?

There’s one big and deep problem that India has, which is that the Indian state has not really reached hundreds of millions of its own citizens.

This has opened up these no man’s lands where Maoist guerrillas can take rein. These are not ideological movements. They are groups of marauding gangsters.

This is about the inability of the state to have reach. When it does have reach, the average Indian’s experience of the state is often one of inefficiency or corruption. And that turns them away from politics and mainstream parties and they turn to ethnic identity or hatred.

Going to China, do you see the advent of a bipolar world?

I think people have over read both China’s rise and president Obama’s visit. By next week, when they will be feting Manmohan Singh at the White House and lots of glorious statements are made about the relationship between USA and India, it will all come back into context.

China is without any question the second most important country in the world, and it will be for much of the 21st Century. I myself do not believe we are in a bipolar world yet. The US is still the single superpower, but not as dominant. Other countries are becoming more important but there is no systemic shift towards bipolarity or multipolarity because there is still this big gap between the US and the rest.

You’ve met a lot of world leaders. Who’s been the most interesting so far?

It’s got to be Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore who took basically this sandbar in southeast Asia and turned it into this extraordinary world city with a per capita GDP greater than Britain. It’s remarkable how he was able to do it in one generation. You rarely find a thinker and a doer in one person.

He’s not everyone’s cup of tea…some people have called him a soft authoritarian. I personally don’t think he was so soft.

Are the days of big newspapers and magazines is coming to an end?

Not if you look at India! In the advanced industrial world where technological change has transformed the way in which you can get information, print publications face a huge crisis and I think there’s no denying that. But the real crisis is not that people no longer want the product… What’s in crisis is the business model. The consumer believes he should be given this product free. The problem is no one has figured out how to do this.

You’d asked a guest on your show whether he believed Obama is a weak president. Can I ask you the same question?

I don’t think Obama is a weak president. He’s playing for the long term. With China and Russia, he’s trying to develop a long-term relationship going beyond immediate quid pro quos. It may be that he will have to modify that calculation because there is the reality of the day to day impression. I don’t think temperamentally he’s a guy who has difficulty being tough. He has a streak of very cool ruthlessness in him. Also, it’s important to remember he’s not made any concessions yet. It’s just atmospherics.

Is there any chance of you joining politics?

I’ve thought about it, and had conversations with people in politics and government. For me, it has always seemed the loss of independence is a very big price to pay. In this job, I can stay true to myself, say what I believe, write what I believe. I can also find time for my children and family. To lose all that has always truck me as a big step. But I wouldn’t rule it out…I just haven’t been seduced yet.

Zakaria’s show Fareed Zakaria GPS airs on CNN every Sunday at 6.30 p.m.