Barack Hussein Obama is about to become the sixth American president to visit India and the third in a row. He is going in the first half of his first term; only Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon did so before him. Presidential visits are carefully planned and scripted, but events invariably have a way of intruding onto the agenda and the stage. This Presidential visit takes place against the backdrop of America’s longest war ever in Afghanistan and a natural disaster in neighboring Pakistan where Obama has invested a huge effort in trying to stabilize a deeply wounded state. The Afghan war and the future of Pakistan will dominate the behind the scenes discussions in New Delhi.
To offer some perspective, Dwight Eisenhower was the first president to go to South Asia. He went in the twilight of his second term, in 1959, and traveled to India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Eisenhower had arranged Pakistan’s two treaty alliances with the west, CENTO and SEATO, and had negotiated the secret U2 base in Peshawar that spied on the Soviet Union with Pakistan’s first military dictator, Ayub Khan. However, he was also eager to work with Jawaharlal Nehru who visited him at the family farm in Gettysburg. Therefore, Eisenhower used his four day visit to India to balance his administrations close ties to Khan.
Richard Nixon spent less than a day in India in 1969. He was perhaps the most pro-Pakistan president in American history, detested Indira Gandhi, and tilted famously toward Pakistan in 1971.
Almost a decade passed before Carter went in 1978. He unknowingly spoke some impolitic comments into a live microphone, which became the main memory of the three day trip. He then flew over Pakistan without a stop to protest General Zia’s execution of Zulfikar Bhutto, and was the last American president to visit Iran. A drought of twenty-five years followed before the next American visit.