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Clinton's India ties may complicate Obama policy
Updated: 2008-12-02 08:58

Influential members of the Indian-American community have rejoiced in Hillary Clinton's selection as secretary of state.

"Sen. Clinton will continue the close relationship between the United States and India that started with the Clinton administration and has progressed in the Bush years," said Varun Nikore, founder of the Indian-American Leadership Initiative, an independent political organization supporting Democratic candidates.

"You cannot expect that any nominee for secretary of state would have a special relationship going into this job, but we're very lucky that we have in Sen. Clinton someone who is already well-versed on one of the more important countries and emerging economies in the world," said Nikore.

A current State Department official allowed that Bill Clinton had substantially boosted engagement with India, but noted that any administration would likely have done so. The official stressed that President George W. Bush has continued that course, most recently signing a civilian nuclear pact with New Delhi.

"None of this has been meant to exclude Pakistan, but it is a zero-sum game when you are dealing with these two countries," the official said. "You can't do something with one without it affecting the other." The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal administration thinking.

Ties between the United States and India improved dramatically, as did Pakistani suspicions of pro-India bias in Washington, during Bill Clinton's administration, which embraced India as a major power and market as it opened its economy in the 1990s.

The administration's disparate treatment of India and Pakistan was most apparent during a 2000 Asian trip, with the president spending five days in India and seven hours in Pakistan.

The Clinton White House barred media coverage of the Pakistan stop and released only an official photo of Bill Clinton and Gen. Pervez Musharraf seated among aides, 12 feet across from each other. Bill Clinton admonished Pakistan's military government to retreat from its nuclear weapons course and to lower dangerous tensions with India.

In a speech to India's Parliament on that trip, Bill Clinton said he shared many of New Delhi's concerns about "the course Pakistan is taking; your disappointment that past overtures have not always met with success; your outrage over recent violence. I know it is difficult to be a democracy bordered by nations whose governments reject democracy."

Early during her presidential campaign in 2008, the former first lady pointed to the "strong partnership" that Bill Clinton forged between India and the US As New York's senator, Hillary Clinton also touted her role as co-chair of the Senate India Caucus.

"As president I will work with India to make our strong friendship even stronger," Hillary Clinton promised earlier this year.

During the presidential campaign, Indian-Americans reciprocated Hillary Clinton's long-standing embrace of India by giving generously -- $2 million at a single fundraiser in New York in 2007.

At one point, the Obama camp prepared, but then disavowed, a campaign memo that carried the headline "Hillary Clinton (D-Punjab)," a mocking play on the standard reference to a candidates' party and constituency.

The memo, which created a furor in India and the Indian-American community, also referred to the Clintons' investments in India, Sen. Clinton's fundraising among Indian-Americans and the former president's $300,000 in speech fees from Cisco, a company that has moved US jobs to India.

Obama called the memo "a dumb mistake" and "not reflective of the long-standing relationship I have had with the Indian-American community."

Now as president-elect, Obama has chosen Hillary Clinton to be his chief diplomat and highlighted India and Pakistan as priorities for his administration.

"The situation in South Asia as a whole and the safe havens for terrorists that have been established there represent the single most important threat against the American people," he told reporters at a news conference Monday as he unveiled his foreign policy and national security team, including Hillary Clinton.

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