By M.K. Bhadrakumar
Any hitching of our wagons to the U.S. global agenda at such a juncture when unprecedented fluidity has appeared in world politics will be incredibly foolhardy.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s remark at Hokkaido last Wednesday that “India and [the] United States must stand tall, stand shoulder to shoulder, and that’s what is going to happen” constitutes an unfortunate statement. We would never know what prompted the Prime Minister to make such a brave statement in the contemporary world situation. Even if the statement was made to flatter U.S. President George W. Bush who was present by his side, that was carrying personal diplomacy a bit too far. Surprisingly, Dr. Singh added while saying so that his opinion was shared by the “thinking segments of our [Indian] population.”
Dr. Singh’s statement plays out very awkwardly in the current regional and international situation. Hardly had Dr. Singh spoken that an American aircraft once again indulged in a war crime in Afghanistan, killing 41 Afghan civilians who formed a marriage party, most of whom were women and children. Again, a well-known forum of anti-war agitators in the U.S. put out the figures that as of July 9 — the day Dr. Singh spoke — 1,236,604 Iraqis have lost their lives since the U.S. invasion in 2003.
Those hapless Afghans and Iraqis will think so poorly of us Indians when we insist on standing tall and shoulder to shoulder with the Bush administration at this point. Even the thinking segments of Indians will be hard-pressed to agree. Indeed, Dr. Singh was amazingly nonchalant about what is going on in India’s neighbourhood. The sabre-rattling over Iran has grown louder. The Iraqi media, citing Defence Ministry sources in Baghdad, have reported that the U.S. has allowed Israeli aircraft to use its airbases in Iraq and to fly over Iraqi airspace for any attack on Iran. Iran has taken the precaution of test-firing missiles, including a new version of its long-range Shahab-3 missile, which puts Israel within Iranian striking range. Hardly 24 hours before Dr. Singh spoke, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Al Khamenei warned that Tehran would “set on fire” any aggressor.
Meanwhile, the tempo of U.S.-Israeli consultations has also picked up. Israel’s Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Israeli armed forces chief Lt. General Gabi Ashkenzai are separately visiting Washington this month. Israeli diplomatic sources have admitted that “Iran will top the agenda.” The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, had visited Israel only two weeks ago. Now comes the sensational story in The Sunday Times newspaper in London, which quotes Pentagon officials as revealing that Mr. Bush has given an “amber light” to Israel. “Amber means you get on with your preparations, stand by for immediate attack and tell us when you’re ready,” the unnamed Pentagon official helpfully explained.
Dr. Singh will have a serious problem if Mr. Bush’s amber light ever turns green. His senior Cabinet colleague, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, seems to anticipate such an anti-climax. At any rate, on Monday, South Block issued a statement distancing New Delhi from any U.S. plans to attack Iran. Mr. Mukherjee might have taken the precaution of ensuring that India is not seen tall and shoulder to shoulder with the U.S. just at this moment at least. Or the government could be assuaging domestic Muslim opinion so that Minister of State E. Ahmed is not embarrassed in his political constituency. It does smack of a lack of principles. Charles-Louis De Secondat wrote in The Spirit of the Laws (1748): “The deterioration of every government begins with the decay of the principles on which it was founded.”
But no matter South Block’s peregrinations, the damage is done to our regional policy. Dr. Singh’s statement in Hokkaido would certainly have been noted in Tehran and in the region. Eyebrows would have been raised in the region, which is already tense about the Bush administration’s intentions in the coming critical weeks and months. Possibly, Mr. Bush may not trigger another war. What goes on in his inner world is difficult to divine. The risk of potential conflict in the region is increasing. The possibility of Israel attempting a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, with tacit U.S. support, cannot be ruled out. Tehran has not closed the door on negotiations but an agreement with the world powers during Mr. Bush’s term is improbable. It means the situation in the region will remain tense all the way until the morning of January 20 when Mr. Bush relinquishes power and retires to Texas.
Suffice it to say that India’s image and reputation in the region would not exactly gain by identifying with the Bush administration’s belligerent policy towards Iran. All the good work Mr. Mukherjee and his team painstakingly undertook in the past several months by way of mending the broken fences in ties with Tehran goes for a six when the Prime Minister proclaims New Delhi’s solidarity with Washington. Actually, Dr. Singh’s statement in Hokkaido runs contrary to the grain of opinion regarding the “war on terror” in the West.
Take the Afghanistan problem, for instance. A multi-national Pew Global Attitudes Project poll conducted in April — even before the bloody months of May, June, and July — revealed that public opinion was vehemently turning against the war in Afghanistan. In the U.S., 44 per cent of respondents favoured troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, up from 32 per cent in February. In the NATO member-countries of Europe — France, Germany, Spain, Poland and Turkey — majorities ranging from 54 per cent to 72 per cent favoured withdrawal.
Against this backdrop, why should Indian foreign policy go out on a limb? The astounding thing is that Dr. Singh, while speaking in Hokkaido, seemed to have been oblivious of the storms gathering in international politics. The day before he spoke, a watershed event took place in Prague when the U.S. and the Czech Republic signed an agreement regarding the deployment of components of the U.S. missile defence system in Central Europe. As a noted Moscow commentator put it: “the deployment of [U.S.] missile defence systems on the Russian border will close the era in global history that began with Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost.”
Unsurprisingly, the Russian reaction has been sharp. President Dmitry Medvedev reacted from Hokkaido itself on July 9. He said Russia was “dismayed” over the U.S. missile defence deployment. The Russian Foreign Ministry warned, in a statement, that Moscow would be forced to respond with a “military-technical approach” rather than a diplomatic one. Russia’s envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rozogin, said the U.S. deployment in Central Europe would be “a totally destabilising element between the East and the West.” Top Russian military experts have called on Moscow to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with the United States. There are reports that Russia might deploy tactical Iskander-M missiles in the Kaliningrad Region, from where they could reach the U.S. systems in Central Europe.
Surely South Block cannot be in the dark about all that is happening. The issue is whether a serious regional power such as India can remain indifferent to these developments, more so, as this cannot be seen as Russia’s problem alone. Two days later, on July 11, China’s People’s Daily noted that the U.S. move “implies a vital, crucial step … of far-reaching significance in the security and political fields.” The commentary criticised the U.S. move as being based on the doctrine of nuclear superiority and absolute security. It said it therefore “violates the global strategic balance and undermines the existing arms control regime.”
The People’s Daily warned that not only Russia but other nations too would “seek ways for their own protection” from the U.S.’s pursuance of absolute security and they would be “obliged” to resort to “technical upgrading and increased quantities” of ballistic missiles with multiple warheads. Most important, the Chinese commentary underscored that “a missile race between regions and nations is inevitable and the proliferation of the related technologies is also very likely.”
Clearly, the international system is heading for a period of turbulence. A prolonged period of readjustment may ensue in all likelihood. India cannot be indifferent. Several factors come into play, including the acute problems facing the U.S. economy, the looming crisis over energy security, NATO’s continuing expansion, and the potential defeats in the “war on terror” in Iraq and Afghanistan. Only the most audacious judgment bordering on the reckless can be certain about the denouement. To say the least, any hitching of our wagons to the U.S. global agenda at such a juncture when unprecedented fluidity has appeared in world politics will be incredibly foolhardy. Besides, it is all highly unnecessary.
The only charitable explanation that can be given to Dr. Singh’s extraordinary statement is that he was simply overwhelmed by the unique occasion on the wind-swept island of Hokkaido — Mr. Bush standing by his side expressing fulsome compliments for rushing the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal past the Rubicon.
The author is a former Ambassador belonging to the Indian Foreign Service.
Source: The Hindu, New Delhi