The media’s excitement over Ivanka Trump’s recent Hyderabad visit betrays an inadequate understanding of foreign political dynamics. Reports on the details of dishes served and photographs of the regal Falaknuma Palace dinner table for 101 guests where Prime Minister Narendra Modi entertained US President Donald Trump’s daughter expose the nostalgia of some Indians for a feudal past. However, our officialdom seems to have treated her as an ex-officio head of state even as her credentials within the US government are now very doubtful. Print headlines like ‘Ivanka proves to be Trump card in outreach to India‘ display ignorance about the decision-making process in the US. More embarrassing was Ivanka’s certificate to our prime minister during a crucial election time.
Diplomacy has two aspects. One is hard and effective bargaining with foreign powers for protecting our national security, enlarging our political standing and negotiating for sustaining and augmenting our commerce, industry and technology. The second is event management and entertainment to facilitate the main objective. Unfortunately, the second aspect seems to have overtaken the first and the red carpet welcome to Ivanka is an illustration of that. At the same time, our failure to lobby with the US Congress on the US National Defense Authorization Act which let the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba off the hook stands out as an example of the lack of diplomatic anticipation. Through this, we failed to persuade the US Congress to retain mention of LeT in their final version of the Act.
A distinct impression was available to those who know the working of Washington “inside the beltway”, that various agencies, in particular the US State Department and Pentagon, were following their own legally laid down agenda irrespective of the confusing power play within the White House and the US President’s befuddling policy swings through his tweets. A report in Vanity Fair on November 27 quoted unnamed sources that the US State Department under secretary Rex Tillerson was cold shouldering Ivanka’s India visit “to undermine her biggest gig yet representing America on the world stage” by refusing to send a senior delegation with her. The report also said that Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner were feeling the heat from the new White House chief of staff John Kelly.
A similar report by CNN on November 28 quoted “a source close to the White House” that “the thinner-than-past-years state department delegation was absolutely being perceived and felt – by several key people there – as a snub”. The ostensible reason put forward by the state department was “budget constraints”.
Even earlier, there were reports that the White House bureaucracy was clipping Ivanka’s wings who had the habit of sitting “in inappropriate seats” like posing with G-20 world leaders in July this year. A report on August 25, 2017 said that Kelly had issued instructions that required Ivanka “to schedule an appointment in order to meet with the president”. It said that Ivanka and Kushner were asked to go “through the same process as every other member of staff” even if they wanted to speak to the president on the phone.
This caution by the White House bureaucracy was understandable in view of later reports. On September 26, 2017, MSNBC and Bloomberg reported that Ivanka Trump’s China business ties were “more secret than ever“, that public information which used to be available in private trading data “has vanished” and that identities of “90% of shipments” were unknown. The report concluded: “The deepening secrecy means it’s unclear who Ivanka Trump’s company is doing business within China”. The report further said that this was disturbing “even as she and her husband, Jared Kushner, have emerged as important conduits for top Chinese officials”.
On November 21, 2017, Wall Street Journal said that Special Counsel Robert Mueller (former FBI chief) was probing into Kushner’s role as a lobbyist for Russia during the presidential transition. The points are, among others, his role in a UN resolution in December 2016 condemning Israel’s settlement construction in disputed territories and his meeting with one Sergey Gorkov, chief executive of a Russian state-owned bank which was on a US sanctions list after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
On Lashkar-e-Tayyab, we would not have been caught off guard had we kept a close watch over the progress of the NDAA 2018 which started its journey on February 1, 2017. No doubt our diplomats did admirable work in lobbying for Justice Dalvir Bhandari for the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which was the biggest victory for us in any multilateral forum in recent years. These efforts had started in June and came to a culmination in November. But did our focus on the ICJ distract us from monitoring the progress of the NDAA 2018? The legislative work in both houses of Congress was over by June 12, 2017. The next step was to hold a “mark up session” to compare the versions of both the Houses to draft a common Bill. This was done on June 28, 2017 when this bomb shell came: “The House recedes with an amendment that would extend the CSF authority through December 31, 2018 and remove Lashkar-e-Tayyab from those certification requirements not eligible for a national security waiver”. In effect, Hafiz Sayeed was dropped. Only the Haqqani network was retained. Otherwise US defense secretary would have had to certify that Pakistan was acting against both Lashkar and Haqqani network.
The US lawmakers left the responsibility to the Pentagon to monitor that Pakistan did not support Lashkar-e-Tayyab. Dawn reported this first on November 14. Indian media picked it up later. The Times of India on November 23 said that the US Congress decision might have emboldened Pakistan to release Saeed on the eve of 26/11 anniversary.
This is where we need some strong grassroot lobbying to supplement our diplomatic efforts. Although we want to emulate the Israel lobby in the US, we have failed to understand that their remarkable success is by keeping a close watch on any legislation affecting Israel. They started in 1981 after President Reagan concluded the AWACS planes deal with Saudi Arabia, which was considered as a great set back to the Israel lobby. Apart from grassroot electoral work, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) also cultivates “key contacts” in administration, media, think tanks, Congress and keeps a close watch on Congressional hearings. They attend meetings on subjects of their interest, educate the US public on the importance of US-Israeli relationship, combat anti-Israel propaganda very aggressively – if necessary, by public demonstrations, high profile seminars and Congressional receptions.
Vappala Balachandran is a former special secretary, Cabinet Secretariat whose latest book is Keeping India Safe: The dilemma of Internal Security.