Byline by M J Akbar: Silence is not an answer
Every ruling system, no matter how radical its origins, develops a vested interest in silence. The most widely used justification for secrecy is national interest, of course; and, once in government, politicians quickly acquire the skill of extending the breadth of national interest to include their personal interests. This personal interest does not necessarily have to be venal. It can be partisan, in the sense that a party might opt for silence in the pursuit of a hidden agenda. But the culture of suppression works wonderfully for those who need to hide the unacceptable.
What happens when a politician begins to peel off the layers that have been used to hide a dramatic truth?
We do not know when the system will force Barack Obama back into the grooves of convention, but he is still young enough in his term, and radical enough in his thinking, to challenge the established wisdom of his own turf, Washington. Perhaps the most dramatic departure he has made is in upending American policy towards Israel’s nuclear programme.
The fact that Israel has a nuclear arsenal of over 200 bombs is surely the worst kept secret of the last few decades, but till Obama became President it remained an official secret in both Israel, and in its strongest ally, America. Israel jailed any citizen who dared to utter a word on the subject, and American Presidents, across party lines, resolutely avoided any mention of the “n” word in reference to Israel. George Bush repeatedly threatened Iran with war on the grounds that it had transgressed its obligation to keep its nuclear programme peaceful; and Bush went to war against Iraq, with appalling blowback for his own country and horrific consequences for civilians in the battle zone, in ostensible search for nuclear weapons. He never uttered a word about Israel’s illegal nuclear stockpile. He was following precedence.Obama has, bravely, ended this hypocrisy. He understands that this duplicity cannot be sustained. You cannot wink at Israel and scold Iran with the same face. It is, in essence, racist to justify Israel’s nuclear status with silence and deny a neighbour like Saudi Arabia the right to defend itself and the Arab world with matching weapons. The implication is that one nation can be trusted with restraint in its use of nuclear power, but another cannot.
Obama first permitted an official of the US government to speak openly about Israel’s weapons, and upped the ante with the demand that Israel sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty along with India and Pakistan. He has now made the same point, albeit less starkly, in his Cairo speech. The credibility of his Cairo oratory was strengthened immeasurably by the previous American recognition of Israel as a nuclear weapons power.
Such candour will not persuade Israel to abandon its arsenal, and no country can force it to do so either. Israel will remain a nuclear power as long as any country in the world has a single bomb, which probably means forever. But recognition of this fact changes the dialectic of the Middle East discourse completely. It lends greater legitimacy to American pressure on Iran, and strengthens the argument for some form of a nuclear umbrella for those of Israel’s neighbours who ask, rightly, whether this institutionalised imbalance in strategic strength can be justified. So far, America has avoided a response to such a question through its non-recognition of Israeli capability. This, in turn, has persuaded nations like Iran to pursue a clandestine programme.
The history of nuclear weapons is the story of fear, cause and consequence. America and Britain developed the atomic bomb during the Second World War in the Manhattan Project for fear that Germany might do so before them. (It was a joint scientific effort, although America got all the public credit.) Stalin could not afford to be without a nuclear response once the hot war changed to a cold war. Britain was part of the original partnership; France developed an independent capability for reasons of status. China perceived both the American and the Soviet arsenals as a threat; and India, which had fought a war with China in 1962, had to find its answer. Pakistan responded to India.
Israel used regional conflict as its rationale; and Israel is Iran’s implicit justification. There is a cyclical logic in operation. North Korea also has an argument; its war for survival in the early Fifties. The rest of the world does not have any sympathy for this argument, which is why China has joined the United States in condemning North Korea’s brazen behaviour. But the very fact that the Security Council can do very little about disarming even a nation as weak and unstable as North Korea indicates the difficulties inherent in the very laudable concept of disarmament. Anyone with a couple of bombs, and the capability to launch them, has the ultimate blackmail mechanism. It might be suicide for North Korea to actually launch a bomb at Japan or South Korea, but this is surely the ultimate suicide mission. Anyone who is sane has to shudder at the sheer havoc such insanity would cause. This, of course, leads us to the existential dilemma: what happens if a weapon ends up in the command of terrorists, or those who believe that such havoc will destroy their perceived enemy? The civil war in Pakistan is tinged by the dread that if the Taliban, or its clandestine supporters in the political establishment, succeeded, the world would enter an unprecedented age of dread. This seems unlikely just now, but the future is another story.
What is the answer? I do not know. What I do know is that silence is not an answer.
(Byline of 14th June 2009 : posted on 28th June 2009)