Byline by M J Akbar: A Con in Congruent
America is the oldest, rather than the youngest, country of the modern world. My definition of modern hinges on a great modern concept, democracy.
There were faults in American democracy, but for more than two centuries, America has found the creative link between national independence and individual freedom to create the world’s most successful economic and military power. You cannot enter the modern age simply by building highways as good as America’s. You also need a democracy as good as, or even better than, America’s.
The spine of democracy is the law. Governments come and go, and may the traffic be incessant, but the law is permanent. Governments can legislate, or amend legislation, but once that is done, governments become subservient to the law.
It is curious that one of the most vocal advocates of world democracy, a man ready to spend billions in war ostensibly to create it, should miss such a basic principle. President George Bush sought to allay Indian concerns over the civilian nuclear partnership that he signed into American law, by explaining that a President makes foreign policy, not Congress. For reasons that can only be excused by either ignorance or indifference, large sections of the Indian elite, including, sadly, media, immediately congratulated themselves on yet another "victory". If the American President makes foreign policy, why did Bush need Congress approval of his deal with India? The President is head of the executive, and he certainly has much leeway in his management of government, but he is not above the Congress. If the Congress defines the parameters, then the President can only break them at the risk of impeachment.
The narrative of the Indo-US deal now has been bound with hard covers, and the covers are the Hyde Act. The July 18 agreement of 2005 is a limp document that may or may not be in the appendix. Bush has less than 25 months in office; the text of the Hyde Act, unless amended, will be in force long after Bush and this columnist are in their graves. Bush is an interlocutor; the Hyde Act is the lock that will seal the discourse for a generation if not more.
It is specious to suggest, as some in the Delhi government have done, that the Hyde Act is binding only on the United States. Isn’t that the point? We did not do this deal to supply nuclear fuel to ourselves, did we? We did it to get American fuel and technology, and if the United States cannot give it because we are in violation of some aspect of Hyde’s tough and unambiguous demands, then we are up a creek without a paddle.
What are the main objectives of the Hyde Act? They are written in clean English. One stated objective is non-proliferation. It avers that as long as India is outside the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which we have not signed, it will remain a challenge to the "goals of non-proliferation". How does the Act propose to achieve this goal? By seeking to "halt the increase in nuclear weapons arsenals in South Asia and to promote their reduction and eventual elimination".
Halt, reduce and eliminate. Remember these three words.
Those who insist that the deal is only about civilian nuclear energy are surely literate, and one presumes that they have imperatives that persuade them to gloss over such phrases. "The costs to the US appear minimal. The price India will have to pay may well be total loss of control over its future policies," M.R. Srinivasan, member of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission, told the December 21 issue of Science magazine.
The Hyde legislation calls for Indo-American cooperation between scientists to develop a common non-proliferation programme — for the rest of the world, that is, not for America. America continues to exercise its right to test, and is working to build miniature nuclear weapons whose fallout can be contained, making them usable in conventional war.
It may be of mild interest that if we agree to this deal, we will also be committing ourselves to the elimination of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons along with ours. Perhaps optimists in Delhi believe that after he solves Kashmir, President Pervez Musharraf will discuss a nuclear-free South Asia, but somehow I doubt it.
If the first objective is corrosive, the second is colonial. It wants Indian foreign policy to be "congruent" to America’s, and expects "greater political and material" support in the realisation of American goals. I doubt, if during the talks, any Indian negotiator suggested that America might want to align itself with Indian foreign policy goals. That would be the language of equals, and this is an unequal relationship.
Sometimes the fog of peace is more dense than the fog of war, but there is a route map to guide us through to US strategy. It is a country called "Iran".
"Congruence" is an untidy word with very neat implications. Bilateral agreements rarely, if ever, are third-country specific. Here is what the deal expects India to do vis-à-vis Iran: "full and active cooperation to dissuade, isolate and if necessary sanction and contain Iran".
The text asks India to keep in step with US policy on Iran, and quotes, approvingly, the votes by India against Iran in the IAEA board of governors as evidence of such compliance. Iran is not the only country with which America has a problem about nuclear intentions. Iran does not have a weapon yet, although it is clearly making a serious effort to get one. North Korea has weapons.
There is no specific linkage to North Korea. Why? One possible answer: Washington does not contemplate war with North Korea, but retains the option for an assault on Iran in 2007.
Hyde is the stick to Bush’s carrot. But both are on the same side.
Bush would certainly expect "political and material" support from India if he started military action against Iran. Don’t underestimate the "material" part.
Dedicated astrologers apart, everyone concedes that predictions are a speculative science. There is something about the end of a year, however, that makes such a temptation irresistible. The current language of defeat, or "neither winning nor losing", may have lulled us into the belief that Washington’s military options are off the table. The Iraq Study Group, headed by as patrician a Republican as James Baker, a virtual uncle to George, has suggested that Washington starts talks with Damascus and Tehran, not war.
But there is a minority — and, I stress, speculative view — that a last-ditch desire to salvage a miracle out of the mess, might tempt Bush, Tony Blair and Ehud Olmert into gambler’s corner. All three have tasted unexpected and even humiliating defeat this year, and have one chance before the triumvirate disintegrates with Blair’s departure in early summer. Their fortunes might suddenly transcend if they were able to announce, at the end of a series of lightning strikes, that they had eliminated Iran’s nuclear facilities.
There is also a technical reason, which all but a few experts have missed. The destruction of Iran’s nuclear facilities would become too dangerous, apparently, after November, because the fallout would then reach Chernobyl levels.
I spoke to Dr Steven Wright, who presented a paper on this subject at a security conference in Geneva in the first week of December: "Yes, there is indeed a technical issue at play which no one I have come across has picked up on. In essence, it is the loading of the Russian manufactured and supplied uranium fuel rods for the Bushehr reactor. Air strikes cannot be carried out after they have been loaded into the reactor due to the fallout being akin to Chernobyl. Therefore, they need to be carried out before that time, if at all. The Bushehr reactor, despite being a light water reactor, still has a proliferation risk as the uranium rods can be removed a mere four months after loading and a crude plutonium weapon can be fashioned from it. There is a common myth that light water reactors are proliferation proof. If the objective is to prevent Iran from developing such a weapon, action would need to be carried out before this stage is reached."
There are many reasons why war should not happen. Bush, Blair and Olmert may want one, but their publics are disenchanted, and their legislatures more circumspect. The Pentagon is stretched taut, as are the British armed forces. The impact on oil prices, and the region, would be catastrophic. But dreams of glory have this awkward ability to overwhelm common sense. It has happened before, in Iraq. India was not tested three years ago because Bush declared a premature victory. If there is another American "shock and awe" invasion, we will find out whether India is still independent or has become congruent.