US and Indo-Pak relations: the Obama view

While Pakistan came up all too frequently during the recently concluded US Presidential campaign, South Asia watchers sat up when Barack Obama spoke of working with India to deal with Pakistan’s concerns about its security, a prerequisite to bring peace to Afghanistan. This triangular dynamic seems common sense in the subcontinent but attracts only peripheral attention in Washington where Pakistan-Afghanistan relations are seen only from the angle of bilateral relations.

Obama’s statement made many wonder if it implied US was going to step into the role of mediator between India and Pakistan. Although this suggestion was dismissed by both Presidential candidates in the light of the progress of the Indo-Pak peace process, some of the commentary that went with suggestions of mediation hinted at it as being necessary to resolve the schism between the two neighbors.

At least one of the problems with a suggestion of US mediation is that it presumes that the conflicting parties are not rational actors – a notion that subcontinentals find repelling. Of course the US has a long and fairly successful history of conflict mediation from the Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel to the Good Friday process that brought peace to Ireland, and the Dayton accords that negotiated peace settlement in Yugoslavia.

However unlike in all these cases, the conflicting parties in South Asia are not inviting the US for mediation. This has to do less with issues of sovereignty and more to do with self-identity. India and Pakistan perceive themselves as rational actors who can resolve disputes bilaterally.

The United States has thus far acted sensibly and even pressed upon by Pakistan and Kashmiri expat groups to intervene, has chosen to say that it supports the Indian stand on the issue, that disputes can be adequately resolved through Indo-Pak bilateral dialog.

But should the US choose to change this policy and attempt mediation, it would have to first start by addressing the South Asians as mature, rational actors. Unfortunately this is easier said than done going by rhetoric in Washington both about Pakistan during the current debates and about India during the ratification of the nuclear deal. India and Pakistan are seen as two trigger-happy children who’ve got hold of dangerous nuclear toys.

I remember a former official in the US’ national security apparatus once mentioning that during one of the post-nuclearisation crises in South Asia, he asked an Indian official whether the nuclear option was being considered. The Indian official said that “Yes, a limited nuclear engagement is possible”. Whether or not the official meant it, the American was stunned…and told the Indian, “You have no idea what you are talking about”.

This is one of the general perceptions that clouds the less seasoned among American diplomats. While this has some roots in the American self-image and exceptionalism, it reminds subcontinentals of Kiplingesque “white man’s burden”.

For instance, doves in Washington often point out how unlike the USSR and the US, India and Pakistan are so close that there would be almost no warning time in case of a missile launch restricting any attempt at protection. Anyone who’s worked in missile defense would tell you that even for ICBMs during the cold war, neither the US nor the USSR had any means to stop or divert a missile once it was launched. Ballistic missile defense systems can hardly shoot down an incoming missile in its boost phase even with the best of technology like the still-born Star Wars program. Hence, the nuclear threat between the US and USSR was comparable and in no way more than the threat faced in the subcontinent. In fact, the Cold war arms race spawned tactical nukes like Davy Crockets and artillery shells which were more lethal than any weapon that has emerged on the subcontinent. Therefore, if the US and USSR could work over their differences without mediation during the Cold war, then so can India and Pakistan.

This is not to dismiss the value a mediator can bring to the table. Conflicts often get exacerbated due to asymmetry of information and a respected mediator can play a vital role by acting as a channel of communication between the two parties. Thus, the United States’ value as a mediator cannot be dismissed. But what is pertinent is how the US dons this role and how it treats the two parties once it dons the role – as sovereign states or quarrelling juveniles.

The Indo-US Nuclear Deal – Pre-marital Discord?

The nuclear deal refuses to go off the news. Just when India thought that two of the three key hurdles – defense of the deal in the Indian Parliament, a clean waiver from NSG, and ratification of the deal by the US congress – had been accomplished, came word about the White house letter to a Congressional committee in Jan 2008, and Bush’s covering letter referring the deal for ratification to the Congress. The Bush letter shows, irrespective of its content, the extent to which the US government has gone to get the deal approved, as did the Indian government on its end. Why such hardsell? because the nuclear deal isnt about nuclear fuel supply etc anyways. Given that nuclear non-proliferation has been the biggest irritant in Indo-US ties since the 1990s, this deal was about removing the roadblock to building a strategic partnership with US. The Indian communists were right in what they say the deal entailed. They were wrong in opposing it. Because it’s time india moved out of shadows of the Cold War and took an interests-based approach to foreign policy rather than an ideology-based one.

Having said that, we cannot ignore the Bush letter’s content altogether. After the letter was revealed, people wondered if India had been naive in expecting the US to honor the 123 agreement’s guarantee of uninterrupted supply of nuclear fuel. Under the cover of “interpretation” of the agreement, was the Bush administration trying to have its cake and eating it too?

Actually, both India and the US have displayed some naivete in estimating the other side in this deal. India thought it could get a clean waiver with no strings attached. The US thought India could both be made an ally and a confirmant to non-proliferation laws through the deal. Neither side has achieved much in terms of these expectations.
Trust has always been a difficult element in Indo-US ties. American critics think India’s self-righteous posturing cannot be effaced by strategic benefits from the US and that therefore, India will remain a pain. Witness India’s duplicitous dealings with Iran despite American protests. American diplomats believe in reciprocity – willing to give as long as there is something being given. Indian skeptics on the other hand, say that reciprocity difficult when the odds are so heavily in the Americans’ favor. They also feel that the US will never shed its one-sided, self-centered way of dealing and will walk away from any deal it feels uncomfortable with. Witness the US’ unilateral withdrawal from the ABM treaty with Russia. In other words, Americans sees Indians as Machiavellis while Indians see Americans as Vito Corleones.These perception defects would have to change if the real aim of the 123 agreement viz. strategic relationship, is to be fulfilled. And that can only happen through relentless dialog at all levels between the India and the US. But whether the relationship triumphs is something that only time can tell.

As one of the architects of India’s strategic doctrine put it to me recently, “We’ll have to wait and watch if the relationship works. The US has never had partners, only allies. And India’s never had neither partners nor allies”. In some ways, this deal is like a marriage between a male chauvinist and a feminist. Let’s hope it lasts.