At an off-the-record Aspen Strategy Group meeting held at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington, D.C. in early December, a high-level delegation from India told American foreign policy experts -- including three officials who were part of the formal Obama transition team -- that India might preemptively make Richard Holbrooke persona non grata if his South Asia envoy mandate officially included India or Kashmir, people familiar with the meeting said.
Among the Obama transition figures who attended the meeting, held as part of the Aspen Institute's U.S. India Strategic Dialogue: former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig; Kurt Campbell, the director of the Aspen Strategy Group who is expected to be named assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs; and former Pentagon official Ashton Carter, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Such foreign-policy events occur throughout the city every week, of course, and it's certainly no surprise that top foreign-policy hands, including some who advised President Obama's campaign and his transition, were included.
But Obama administration officials have insisted to Foreign Policy that the Obama transition held no meetings with foreign governments or representatives of foreign governments at all during the transition. "The transition met with no foreign governments and no representatives of foreign governments pursuant to a policy laid out by the then President-Elect," one administration official said by e-mail. What's more, he said, in effect, they did not have to be influenced to exclude India from Holbrooke's official mission, because it was "not contemplated" for the South Asia envoy's portfolio to have an Indian role.
India's exclusion from the envisioned mission was not so obvious to everyone, however, including the Indians and several Washington South Asia hands. The New York Times' Mark Landler, moreover, reported Jan. 7 that Holbrooke would likely be named "a special envoy to Pakistan and India."
"The notion of an envoy on Kashmir or that would include Kashmir came up as soon as Obama mentioned it" in an October 2008 interview with Time, one Washington South Asia expert not associated with any of the campaigns and who did not attend the dialogue said on condition of anonymity. "It was widely discussed by the 50 key South Asia watchers."
And while the Obama transition may not have met with any foreign governments or representatives of foreign governments in any official capacity, foreign governments including India's did try to influence the future administration's policy decisions by working the phones, meeting with Obama transition figures at the margins of conferences, at Washington receptions, and through third parties.
"The message was clearly conveyed by India to the Transition and received," The Cable was told. "It led to a change in how Richard Holbrooke's mission was publicly described and unveiled."
The Obama people may be overly sensitive to the perception they were lobbied, suggested one person baffled by the new administration's insistence that no such contacts regarding South Asia occurred. "And then since the President-Elect said they were not meeting with any foreign government officials. [But] it seems unimportant to me," he said, referring to what he perceived as the Obama team's touchiness on this issue.
"There was a whole delegation of Indians who came through in early December through the Aspen dialogue," he said. "They were almost all former officials. They were interacting ... with people in various capacities, in addition to formal meetings inside the government. They were all over this - what Holbrooke's portfolio would be. The Indians were preemptively irate and were reacting in perhaps a disproportionate way" due to concerns that Holbrooke's mandate might officially include India or Kashmir.
The National Security Council did not respond to messages left by Foreign Policy. Campbell and Danzig did not immediately respond to messages. Carter e-mailed to say he only attended the lunch of the December U.S.-India dialogue.
Photo: File; Alex Wong/Getty Images
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