Sunday, February 05, 2006

A Goliath Called David

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by: A Goliath Called David

Relax. The days when the world turned to America to solve its problems are waning. America is now turning to the world to solve its problems, particularly when it needs help to clean up little pools of mess created by hyperactivity in those regions fortunate or unfortunate enough to possess oil.

Take relations between Washington and Delhi. America used to be the big bogey on Kashmir. Delhi was constantly haunted by the ghost of CIA wandering through the Kashmir valley, and the body of diplomacy chasing the ghost. American policy now has much more to do with how India can help America strategically, than with how the Indian arm can be twisted by means gentle or harsh. That, I believe, is why we might be missing the point of American ambassador David Mulford’s recent remarks to Indian media.

Not being privy to the inner dynamics of the Mulford mind, I can suggest four theories about why Ambassador Mulford rang alarm bells on the nuclear deal prior to President George Bush’s visit to India in early March.

No. 1: Mulford is a businessman, sent to Delhi in a grace-and-favour posting because he is a friend of Texas’ principal patriarchs. Like the famous protagonist of Gone With the Wind, the ultimate in American-south fiction, frankly, my dear, he doesn’t care a damn.

No. 2: Mulford is tired of the job. He is not particularly young, and there are personal problems that he would rather attend to at home in the US of A. Such remarks are one way of reminding the State Department that any arbitrary spray of verbal bullets would be far less damaging in America because they wouldn’t travel very far.

No. 3: This is a nuanced ploy, crafted by someone very clever in the Bush office, a sophisticated variation of good-cop-bad-cop and a new dimension to the Ugly American syndrome. In this theory, if Mulford mucks up the atmosphere really badly, expectations are lowered, which sets the stage brilliantly for Bush. After Mulford, anything that Bush says will sound better and positive, and everyone can claim that the Bush visit has been a grand success despite lower fulfilment levels.

No. 4: Mulford is telling the truth.

Pardon me for sounding naive, but I have a feeling that the last is correct. Mulford is doing no more than telling it like it is.

Ever since Dr Manmohan Singh returned from his last visit to Washington, clutching a piece of paper in his hand, the Delhi establishment has set about trying to convince India that there is indeed something called a free lunch in international affairs, that Washington has accepted India as a virtual sixth nuclear military power, and an ally, if discreet, in the emerging confrontation with China. Implicit in this conjecture was the assumption that America would no longer treat Indian and Pakistan nuclear military power as equal realities; that India would be permitted to float into superpower category and Pakistan dealt with after the new equations had been formalised with Delhi.

It is not difficult to buy the services of drums in Delhi, and a few free airplane tickets are sufficient to generate a lot of noise. The orchestra plays to the baton of the administration and to an audience heavy with media, for dissemination is crucial. The great thing about Indian democracy, however, is that you can never buy off everyone; and critical analysis finds its way into the intellectual space and public discourse with a persuasive power that can never be matched by purchased voices. And so the first optimism of a great leap forward in US-India nuclear relations has been slowed by reality checks: the leap is sort of frozen in mid-air, uncertain whether to travel forward, return to base, or simply descend to ground at the point where it is frozen.

Such self-congratulation always seemed fantasy-driven, if not amateur. Ambassador Mulford may have been publicly provocative to those who did not want to hear the facts, but he was only restating the facts that any honest reporting from Washington could have confirmed to the foreign ministry. Nuclear policy is not controlled by the White House alone, and while the White House, which is the executive wing of government, must of necessity use gloss to shade the difficult parts, there is no evidence that it sees the future of India in quite the same way as the ring around Dr Manmohan Singh. Did the Delhi establishment hear nothing from Senator John Kerry, who was in India only days before the Mulford remarks? Senator Kerry is a Democrat, and the man who might have been President if a few people in Iowa or Ohio thought so too. Kerry was not in Delhi because he had nothing else to do, or because he needed a winter vacation. He was in Delhi, with the full knowledge of the White House, to deliver a specific message: that the questions being raised were bipartisan, and, when you took the pretty phrases out, they were essentially about just one thing: fissile material.

Look at the conundrum from another perspective. Suppose India had not been a nuclear military power, would there have been any fuss at all? If India had a nuclear power plant in every city of the country, dedicated only to peaceful purposes, there would have been a queue of merchandise merchants sitting outside 7 Race Course Road hawking their wares without much regard for the views of the White or Green or Saffron House. The core issue is the military arsenal, and the basic message from Washington is this, cold and simple: separate military facilities from energy facilities; open the latter for continuous inspections so that they cannot ever be used for military purposes; and then freeze the capabilities of the military plants to levels that we can monitor now and reduce later. This is the project in simple English. Translate into any language you fancy. For reference, check why the discussions between Nicholas Burns and Shyam Saran failed in December.

America has double standards on nuclear arsenals in the case of only one country, Israel, and is beginning to pay a credibility price. Iran has made a few things clear in its confrontation with the United States and many Western nations over nuclear power. Iran’s preamble might be self-serving: example: We have not attacked another nation for two hundred years. So what? That does not guarantee that you will not attack another nation in the next two hundred years. President Ahmadinejad’s destroy-Israel rhetoric is unacceptable and counterproductive, but its core argument is finding echoes across the world. The Saudis, surely the best ally America can hope to have in the region, have said quite categorically that Iran’s nuclear potential cannot be divorced from the reality that Israel is a major nuclear military power, and unilateralism is not going to be permanently acceptable. This is why the big powers who sat in London and Vienna to discuss referral of Iran to the United Nations suggested that Israel could also be mentioned. The United States has rejected the idea, but the idea did not come from America’s enemies.

It was inevitable therefore that America would make Iran the test of India’s ability to compromise. For the moment, the government has bought peace with the Opposition by arguing that an international consensus is developing on Iran, but this is only the beginning of the story. John Negroponte, National Intelligence director, accepted in a rare appearance to the Senate Intelligence Committee that Iran had not developed nuclear weapons yet, and was still years away from any realistic ability to do so. There is time for the arguments to develop, and more than one case to be made. Caution is a far better weapon than self-congratulation.

Pakistan is critical to American interests. In fact, as a wise former diplomat in Delhi pointed out, Pakistan should keep quiet and wait: whatever deal was finalised with Delhi would become a fact with Islamabad as well. This seems much more realistic than the wish that America would rubberstamp India as the only nuclear power in the region.

Ambassador Mulford’s term will get over, and he will go. He will be only the first; in a couple of years, none of the authors of the present arrangement, if it becomes law, will be in power. But the problems will not go with them. The nuclear policy of India is not, and has never been, the policy of one government. It is national policy, and therefore non-partisan. It must be conducted with care, consultation and support from all sides of the Indian Parliament and the Indian people. In government, you always have to juggle with the ball, and drop it at your own risk. When you juggle with the nuclear ball you drop it not just at your own risk, but at the risk of the nation as well.

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