U.S.-India nuclear deal: Bereft of transformative power

After the euphoria, the harsh reality

Brahma Chellaney

The Hindu newspaper, May 1, 2009

The much-trumpeted Indo-U.S. nuclear deal has failed to yield strategic benefits for India. Indeed, such is its burden that even as U.S. policy ignores vital Indian interests in the region, New Delhi stays mum.

The U.S.-India nuclear deal was promoted as a transformative initiative — one that would put the bilateral relationship on a much-higher pedestal. In his valedictory speech, President George W. Bush declared: “We opened a new historic and strategic partnership with India.” By contrast, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has not made a single statement on the deal — not even to Parliament — ever since the vaunted deal came to fruition, other than to admit recently that he got his party to back the deal by threatening to resign.


Dr. Singh’s reticence has to do with the fact that the conditions and riders the U.S. Congress attached while ratifying the deal demolished the assurances he had made to Parliament. Consequently, Dr. Singh was unable to keep the promise he made to the Lok Sabha last July 22: “I will come to Parliament before operationalizing the nuclear agreement.” On several occasions before the deal was set in cement, Dr. Singh, however, had trumpeted its transformative character.


Seven months after the deal’s realization, there is no sign of its transformative power. Rather, doubts have arisen over the supposed “global strategic partnership” with America. The policy frame in which Washington is viewing India is not the larger Asian geopolitical landscape, but the southern Asian context. But even on regional matters of vital interest to India, the U.S. has sought to ignore New Delhi or pursue antithetical policy approaches. To the chagrin of Indian neocons — who ingenuously marketed the nuclear deal as a U.S. move to build India as a world power and counterweight to China — Washington has declared that its “most important bilateral relationship in the world” is with Beijing.


Those who rammed through the deal — even if it meant stunting India’s nuclear-deterrent development — blame the new U.S. administration for downgrading India’s importance and being unsympathetic to its security concerns. Actually, it’s the deal-pushers who are to blame for allowing their wishful thinking to blind them to the strategic trends that were firmly set long before Barack Obama came to the White House.


Take the China factor. America and the Soviet Union took three decades to achieve mutually assured destruction (MAD). During Bush’s presidency, America and China became locked in MAD — not in military but in economic terms. The two now are so tied in a mutually dependent relationship for their economic well-being that attempts to snap those ties would amount to mutually assured destruction. Just as the beleaguered U.S. economy cannot do without continuing capital inflows from China, the American market is the lifeline of the Chinese export juggernaut.


It was thus no surprise that Bush left the White House with a solid China-friendly legacy, best illustrated by the manner in which he ignored the Chinese crackdown in Tibet and showed up at the Beijing Olympics. It wasn’t a surprise either that Hillary Clinton paid obeisance in Beijing soon after her appointment as secretary of state, going to the unusual extent of publicly demoting human rights and emphasizing economic, environmental and security relations with China. Today, there is talk even of a US-China diarchy — a G-2 — ruling the world. The naïveté of Indian neocons was astonishing.


Take the Mumbai terrorist assaults. After Pakistan-based elements orchestrated those unparalleled attacks, two successive U.S. administrations leaned on India to refrain from imposing the mildest diplomatic sanctions against Islamabad. As Mrs. Clinton candidly admitted before a congressional panel on April 23, “We worked very hard, as did the prior administration, to prevent India from reacting.That admission explains why Dr. Singh did not take the smallest of small steps against Pakistan — even as a symbolic expression of India’s outrage — despite saying in public that “some Pakistani official agencies must have supported” those attacks.


Take another example. India got no tangible help from the Bush or Obama administration to bring the plotters of the Mumbai strikes to justice, despite providing extraordinary access to the Federal Bureau of Investigation to independently investigate those attacks and even allowing the CIA to serve as a conduit for intelligence exchange with Islamabad. Rather, Washington wants India now to rise above the Mumbai attacks and aid Obama’s “Afpak” strategy by giving Pakistan a tranquil eastern border through troop redeployments.


The U.S. message to India is to forget Mumbai and silently suffer Pakistan’s war by terror — a message reinforced by Washington’s identification of terrorist safe havens only along Pakistan’s western border. Mrs. Clinton indeed suggested India endure more Mumbais stoically by telling Congress, “So, we do have a lot of work to do with the Indian government, to make sure that they continue to exercise the kind of restraint they showed after Mumbai, which was remarkable, especially given the fact that it was the political season.”


Take yet another case. The re-hyphenation of India with Pakistan today is complete. India now figures in U.S. calculations principally in relation to Pakistan and Obama’s new Afpak strategy. This poorly conceived strategy is doomed to fail. And its means and ends are sure to engender more terrorist attacks against India, already bearing the brunt of the blowback from past failed U.S. policies.


The re-hyphenation, however, flows not from a policy decision in Washington but from the disappearance of an optical illusion called “de-hyphenation.” As American scholars Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph have written, “For roughly 50 years, the U.S. destabilized the South Asia region by acting as an offshore balancer. Its actions allowed Pakistan to realize its goal of ‘parity’ with its much-bigger neighbour and to try to best that neighbour in several wars.” But with Pakistan’s descent into chaos and India’s economic rise, the U.S. had no choice in this decade but to advance ties with India, to quote Mrs. Clinton again, “as part of a wide-ranging diplomatic agenda to meet today’s daunting challenges topped by the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”


Under Bush, U.S. policy simply went from hyphenation to parallelism. That involved building strategic partnerships with and selling arms to both India and Pakistan. No sooner had Bush initiated the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) with India in early 2004 than he caught New Delhi unawares by designating Pakistan a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA). His push to sell weapons to India coincided with the U.S. sale of F-16s, P-3C Orions, C-130s, TOW missiles, Aerostat surveillance radars, 155mm self-propelled howitzers and Phalanx systems to Pakistan to help maintain “military balance on the subcontinent.” This decade brought U.S. success in building parallel intelligence-sharing and defence-cooperation arrangements with India and Pakistan, while supposedly pursuing “de-hyphenation.”


On Pakistan — a pawn too valuable for any U.S. administration to stop using for regional objectives — American policy has displayed continuity for long. The fact that Obama, in his first 100 days, has helped put together $15.7 billion in international aid for Islamabad shows the U.S. resolve not to allow Pakistan to fail — a country where, he admits, “we have huge strategic interests.” But it was Bush who let Pakistan rake in a terrorist windfall, as he plied it with sophisticated weapons and more than $12.3 billion in funds, notwithstanding the escalating Pakistani-scripted terror attacks in India after 9/11.


Both under Bush and Obama, the Taliban’s top Afghan leadership (living in Quetta) has received protection not just from the Pakistani intelligence, but also from the CIA, which has not carried out a single drone attack in or around Quetta so that the U.S. retains the option to cut a political deal over Afghanistan. It’s no wonder that even as the Taliban’s sway in Pakistan spreads, Robert Gates, Bush’s and now Obama’s defence secretary, has said the U.S. “would be very open” to a Swat Valley-style agreement in Afghanistan with the Taliban.


For years, the U.S. has played to India’s ego and to Pakistan’s craving for funds and weapons. Bush kept India happy with a grand partnership vision while he pandered to Pakistan’s needs. The very day Bush announced his decision to sell F-16s to Pakistan — a public slap for India — Washington patronizingly offered to “help India become a major world power in the 21st century.” This was lapped up by Indian neocons as a “tectonic shift” in U.S. policy. Similarly, Obama massaged India’s ego by declaring that Richard Holbrooke’s mission would stay restricted to the Afpak belt, only to quietly include Kashmir and India in his envoy’s agenda. Now, Centcom chief Gen. David Petraeus has undiplomatically blurted out the truth to Congress that Holbrooke’s “portfolio very much includes India,” and Holbrooke and he are in “constant touch” with Indian officials.


Deal-peddlers in India overlooked a basic fact: In the U.S., stout institutional processes of policymaking inhibit abrupt shifts, and a deal over a single issue was unlikely to yield a fundamental policy change across the board. Even a change of administration, historically, has not meant a dramatic shift in U.S. foreign policy. That is why Obama, elected on the slogan of change, has thus far not delivered substantive change in foreign policy. By employing softer, more conciliatory language, Obama, however, has sought to package his talk as change by itself.


Today, while India gropes for strategic benefits from the nuclear deal, the U.S. is set to reap non-proliferation and economic benefits once international inspections begin and contracts are signed. It is unfortunate that intense partisan rancour was kicked up in India over an oversold deal, which was pushed through with no public scrutiny, although it thrusts an uneconomical energy choice and carries long-term implications.


© Copyright 2000 – 2009 The Hindu

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