Is There Rhyme or Reason in Trump’s Approach to Syria, Afghanistan and North Korea?

History News Network

In November 2016, Donald Trump swept to the White House making some bewilderingly simplistic promises, which meant keeping out of foreign wars, and concentrating on dismantling America’s internal power structures to recreate them in his own vision. Three months after taking office, he has ordered two big military attacks on Syria and Afghanistan, both within a week. And he is warning of retaliation against North Korea’s maverick leadership.

The start of the Trump administration has been chaotic. He is having to fight hard to implement his plans, especially health care and immigration. He has found that his dehumanizing anti-Hispanic and anti-Muslim rhetoric since his presidential campaign began in June 2015 will be problematic, and slow, to turn into reality.

Hence, Trump has turned his domestic frustration abroad at a dangerously early stage. It took President George W. Bush seven months, and the traumatic events of 9/11, to go on the warpath. Trump has not completed his first hundred days yet.

Donald Trump’s foremost targets are the Muslim world and North Korea. Like al-Qaida during the Bush administration (2001–2009) Trump singles out ISIS, an umbrella for many dispersed violent groups of Sunni fundamentalists, for the ills emanating from the Muslim world, and threatening civilization. He is also consumed by North Korea and its advancing nuclear weapons program. China, North Korea’s ally, has come under fierce criticism from Trump for not restraining the Pyongyang regime, and for manipulating its own currency to steal American jobs.

The Trump administration saw President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and his Russian patrons as useful tools in fighting ISIS. The decision to hit the Shayrat airbase with cruise missiles three days after a chemical attack was reported in the rebel-held town of Khan Shaykhun was a policy reversal by Trump.

One noteworthy aspect of the American attack on Shayrat was that while other Syrian facilities were hit at the airbase, the runways which Russia had expanded in 2015, and which Russian warplanes currently use, were spared. Within hours, bombers were flying new missions against anti-Assad forces. The attack on the Syrian airbase also helped Trump counter domestic criticisms of close ties with Putin and the Kremlin lobby, though it was not enough to stop new revelations.

To say that mutual accusations of recent days between the White House and the Kremlin amount to a phony war would be an exaggeration. For domestic political reasons, some tension with America’s foremost nuclear adversary serves a useful purpose, and the Trump administration is learning about political expediency. Nonetheless, Trump’s personal esteem for Vladimir Putin is obvious, and his language about the Russian leader and government is restrained.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent visit to Moscow was full of warnings on both sides, but they were civil to each other. And Tillerson had a two-hour meeting with Putin. The relationship between Washington and Moscow may not be what President Trump would have instinctively wanted. But to say that it is at the lowest point is way over the top. US-Soviet relations were near a catastrophically low point all along from the early 1950s to the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s.

The change in Trump’s approach to China is also intriguing. He had predicted a “very difficult” meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinping (April 6-7). Yet, after their state dinner and talks, Trump announced that they had made “tremendous progress,” and that they were going to have a “great relationship.” Trump made no mention of China the currency manipulator, causing a massive trade surplus in Beijing’s favor. On North Korea, Trump said that President Xi had explained the situation, and that he was confident that China would do something.

Trump’s manner of telling the Chinese President over chocolate cake that cruise missiles were on their way to hit Syria was strange and amusing. If the idea was to deliver a shock to his guest over sweet dish, it seemed not to have worked. China gave its verdict soon after Xi had returned home, with the state news agency, Xinhua, calling it “the act of a weakened politician who needed to flex his muscles.” The Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, phoned his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, offering to coordinate with the Kremlin to “cool” the escalating row. Trump had managed to push China and Russia closer.

The United States, meanwhile, sent warships to the region. Not to be left behind, North Korea showed off new missiles in a huge military parade in Pyongyang to celebrate the 105th anniversary of its founding leader Kim Il-sung. As American warships were sailing in the region, North Korea test-fired another missile. It failed, but there may well be more to follow.

As President Trump deals with Syria and North Korea, the stakes are high because of Russian and Chinese involvement. Afghanistan has no such risks. Nearly ten thousand US troops are already deployed in the country, and the Kabul government is totally dependent on American military protection and economic assistance.

Like the cruise attack on Syria, Trump’s decision to drop a 22000 pound GBU-43 bomb (called the Mother of All Bombs) on a network of caves in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan filled him with excitement. It also generated considerable enthusiasm among journalists and analysts in the media.

The instant flurry of excitement aside, the bombing deserves a critical examination of facts which are often ignored. The underground caves were built for, and by, the Mujahideen forces, who received massive support from the administration of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s – the decade in which the United States fought a proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Those fractious Mujahideen groups disintegrated, and new recruits were attracted, giving rise to the Taliban. They, in turn, found common cause with al-Qaida in opposing the United States. Following the assassination of Osama bin Laden, elements of al-Qaida morphed into ISIS. The collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, and Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya, meant that more fighters were free to join ISIS.

President Trump called the bombing of the cave complex in Afghanistan “another success,” which made him “very proud” of American military. His administration first claimed that 36 ISIS militants had been killed in the attack. Afghan officials later said that more than 90 people had died.

Contrary to Arab countries, ISIS has found it difficult to establish a firm foothold in Afghanistan, where Afghan nationalism comes in direct conflict with pan-Arab Islamism. Consequently, ISIS-Khorasan (Afghanistan’s old name) is a small group compared to the Taliban – estimated to be no more than a few hundred. ISIS fighters include some disgruntled former Taliban, some new recruits, even fewer Arabs.

It prompted the Economist newspaper to say that although President Trump relishes headlines about his success, the significance of bombing in Afghanistan should not be “overstated as a military game-changer.” In 2001, the predecessor of the GBU-43 bomb (BLU-83) was used against the Taliban in the Tora Bora cave network. But the Taliban survived, have since thrived, and would make it very difficult for the present Afghan government to survive without American protection.

Since the early days of the Cold War in the 1950s, we have witnessed plenty of theatrics from rival leaders with narcissistic tendencies. History tells us about Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-tung and North Korea’s founding leader Kim Il-sung. But theatrics can go wrong, and can lead to disastrous unintended consequences.

We have entered a new era of dangerous theatrics in international politics. Donald Trump and Kim Il-sung are the two leading actors. Let us hope that the rest of the cast will exercise a restraining influence.

[END]

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Living With the Hegemon: Extending the Empire to New Frontiers

CounterPunch, July 17, 2012

Extending the Empire to new frontiers

Recent wars from Libya to Afghanistan and Pakistan in a region of vast natural wealth and strategic importance highlight a phenomenon as old as humanity. Iraq and Libya had oil, but their leaders were longtime foes of the United States, now the world’s lone hegemon. Saddam Hussein allied with the Soviet Union before its demise, so did Muammar Gaddafi. They both displayed stubbornness. They were ready to drop the American dollar as the oil currency before bigger players like China and India dared. Saddam and Gaddafi ruled with an iron hand state systems that were brittle. They were too independent for their own good.

Saudi Arabia and tiny Arab emirates such as Bahrain and Qatar, on the other hand, are punching above their weight. Wealthy and dictatorial, their rulers accommodate the hegemon’s interests. These rulers sell their oil and amass petrodollars which they spend in vast quantities on weapons and consumer goods from the industrialized world led by the hegemon. Their relationship is far more agreeable.

The hegemon is thus left with states of two more categories of significant kind. In one category is Iran since the 1979 Revolution, Syria since the 1963 Ba’athist coup, and Sudan. The hegemon intervenes seeking to overthrow uncooperative regimes by diplomatic, economic and military means. In the second category are China, Russia and, to a lesser degree, India, where even the world’s lone hegemon has limits. Beyond these categories are the discarded––completely failed entities like Somalia, Ethiopia, Mali, where utterly poor and miserable people live.

The hegemon and satellites have not a care in the world for the welfare of such people, except sending drones or troops from neighboring client states to kill those described as “terrorists.” What desperate poverty and misery lead to has no space within the realm of this thinking.

Plato’s Republic, written around 380 BC, has a dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon about civilized society. They discuss how a society develops from primitive to higher levels of civilization. Trades and occupations multiply and population grows. The next stage of development, according to Socrates, is an increase in wealth that results in war, because an enlarged society wants even more for consumption. Plato’s explanation is fundamental to understanding the causes of war. This is how empires rise, military and economic power being essential to further their aims. A relevant section in the Republic reads:

We shall have to enlarge our state again. Our healthy state is no longer big enough; its size must be enlarged to make room for a multitude of occupations none of which is concerned with necessaries. There will be hunters and fishermen, and there will be artists, sculptors, painters and musicians. There will be poets with their following of reciters, actors, chorus-trainers, and producers; there will be manufacturers of domestic equipment of all sorts, especially those concerned with women’s dress and make-up. 

Nearly two and a half millennia after Plato, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt offered a Marxist vision of the twenty-first century in their book Empire. Their core argument in the book published in 2001 was that globalization did not mean erosion of sovereignty, but a set of new power relationships in the form of national and supranational institutions like the United Nations, the European Union and the World Trade Organization. According to Negri and Hardt, unlike European imperialism based on the notions of national sovereignty and territorial cohesion, empire now is a concept in the garb of globalization of production, trade and communication. It has no definitive political center and no territorial limits. The concept is all pervading, so the “enemy” must now be someone who poses a threat to the entire system––a “terrorist” entity to be dealt with by force. Written in the mid-1990s, Empire got it right, as subsequent events testify.

The United States occupied “a privileged position in Empire” depicted by Negri and Hardt. Its privileges did not necessarily arise from its “similarities to the old European imperialist powers.” They derived from the assertion of  “American exceptionalism.” From the early days of its formal constitution, the founders of the United States had believed that they were creating “a new Empire with open, expanding frontiers,” where power would be distributed in networks. More than two centuries later, the idea had become global. The presidency of George W. Bush was a powerful militaristic expression of America’s will.

Like terrorism, the term “empire” is often used disparagingly by those on the left and the right. The emergence of the United States and the Soviet Union as the two greatest powers after the Second World War offered contrasting models. Advocates of each accused the other of being an empire, meaning a large population comprising many nationalities in distant territories living under subjugation or exploitation.

Different concepts of empire have existed through history. For centuries, the term referred to states that considered themselves successors to the Roman Empire, but later it came to be applied to non-European monarchies such as the Empire of China or the Mughal Empire. Most empires in history came into being as a result of a militarily strong state taking control of weaker ones. The result in each case was an enlarged, more powerful political union, before its eventual decline.

The dissolution of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s and early 1990s was a blow against the idea of ruling an empire by brute force. Suddenly, the floodgates opened for rapid globalization and expansion of the markets to places that had previously been in the Soviet domain. Capitalism could reach where it had not been before, from newly independent countries in eastern Europe to Soviet-style economies in Asia and Africa. Two decades later, the West was to hit the most serious crisis since the Great Depression. It was brought about by a combination of impudence after the West’s Cold War triumph, false sense of moral superiority and belief in its power to destroy and recreate nations at will.

Norwegian scholar Johan Galtung, regarded as the father of conflict and peace studies, said in 2004 something that is a fitting definition of the term “empire.” He described it as “a system of unequal exchanges between the center and the periphery.” An empire “legitimizes relationships between exploiters and exploited economically, killers and victims militarily, dominators and dominated politically and alienators and alienated culturally.” Galtung observed that the U.S. empire “provides a complete configuration, articulated in a statement by a Pentagon planner.”  The Pentagon planner in question was Lt. Col. Ralph Peters:

The de facto role of the United States Armed Forces will be to keep the world safe for our economy and open to our cultural assault. To those ends, we will do a fair amount of killing. (Fighting for the Future: Will America Triumph? 1999, 141)

The American defense planner’s confession was as revealing as it was terrifying. Economic interest and cultural domination are interwoven in imperial thinking, driven by its simplistic logic. Imperial powers are expansionist by nature, always inclined to enlarge territories they control. What lies behind their ambition is access to more and more resources––energy, minerals, raw materials and markets to trade. Imperial behavior drives a great power to expand its domain of direct control or influence by military and other means to territories that have resources and a certain cultural symmetry with the center. The greater the cultural symmetry, the better for the hegemon.

 [END]

On Exceptionalism and Deviance

The Wall Street Journal recently carried a speculative article by Ian Tally suggesting a link between the International Monetary Fund’s bailout loans to the European Union’s worst hit economies and sanctions against Iran. In essence, the article said that the Obama administration would likely support bailout loans to Greece, Italy and Spain in exchange for the EU agreeing to an embargo on Iran’s oil.

The source of the WSJ article was Jacob Kirkegaard of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. Kirkegaard speculated that the timing of the European Union’s “newly-proposed ban on Iranian oil imports” was too fortuitous to be purely coincidental. Greece, Spain and Italy are all heavily dependent on Iranian oil and therefore most resistant to an embargo. According to the WSJ, they are no longer resisting a ban. Italy says that it would support the measure “in principle” while Greece and Spain have indicated that they would not veto the idea.

What has changed? First of all, both Italy and Greece have new prime ministers, installed as part of an understanding with external rescuers, notably Germany and the IMF. The new prime ministers are not politicians, but technocrats, who took office within a week of each other in November 2011. Mario Monti of Italy, a former EU commissioner, became the prime minister, as well as the minister for economy and finance, replacing the colorful and highly controversial Silvio Berlusconi. The new prime minister of Greece, Lucas Papademos, was formerly the vice president of the European Central Bank.

These events were the most obvious evidence of an extraordinary shift in power from elected politicians to supranational institutions. There was also a change of government in Spain last November, when the center-right Popular Party came to power, defeating the governing Socialist Party. These changes were a political earthquake in the midst of an economic crisis. It struck in defiance of the popular mood on the streets.

The disconnect between the rulers, including and backed by wealthy corporate interests, and the subjects has consequences for domestic as well as foreign policies of the countries concerned. The mood in the main street everywhere is anti-war. But such sentiment cannot control governments’ propensity to fight foreign wars while corporations are given freedom to operate in an environment with minimal regulation. While the state withdraws from policy making and essential service provision, private corporations are allowed practices which determine employment, wages, and consequently money circulation. The accumulation of wealth by one percent greatly reduces the purchasing power of the 99 percent. High unemployment and depressed economy result in lower interest rates. If banks are threatened with failure, the tax payer is there as the rescuer of last resort.

What does it have to do with sanctions and the current talk of military action against Iran in Western capitals? The economic crisis has made all but the wealthiest countries susceptible to supranational powers. It enables the IMF, and the United States, to exercise control over countries in need, in both domestic and foreign policies.

The Wall Street Journal referred to one issue, that of an embargo on Iranian oil sales. There are other examples where pressure tactics have been used against foreign governments to tow the American line. The increasingly aggressive U.S. campaign against Iran ranges from the European Union to countries in Asia, including India, China, Japan and South Korea to name a few.

The veto powers of China and Russia rule out further sanctions on Iran with the UN Security Council’s approval. So the Obama administration and Congress have adopted the tactic of forcing other countries to obey American law and go along with sanctions imposed by Washington. The temptation to look and act tough from Obama to Republican presidential aspirants, Congressmen and Senators is irresistible as the November 2012 elections approach. American policy of making the world obey U.S. domestic law is blatant and bizarre.

It makes a mockery of other nation-states’ independence and sovereignty and their right to formulate and pursue their own policies. The United Nations is rendered irrelevant while the United States goes Rambo on the international stage. That such behavior is causing widespread alienation among other countries, and ultimately threatens America’s own interests, is a message lost in Washington.

[END]

A New Cold War

There was something odd about the “final pullout” of United States troops from Iraq as the last military convoy crossed the border into Kuwait. Addressing a group of returning soldiers at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, a few days before, President Obama hailed it as an “historic” moment after nine years of conflict, proclaiming it a “success.” He said, “We are leaving a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq.” Obama’s claim is questionable in every respect. Let us not forget he once called it a “dumb war.” In Fallujah, once an insurgent stronghold and a target of major American offensives in 2004, where the anti-American sentiment still runs deep, people burned U.S. flags. In Baghdad, a trader expressed his fear of terrorists coming back.

The American military involvement in Iraq has wound down after nine years. But Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has reaffirmed America’s determination to maintain its military presence in the region. As the West and its regional allies increase the pressure on Syria, close to civil war, and the brinkmanship with Iran continues, Russia announced that it was sending warships to its naval base in Syria, in a demonstration of support for Damascus. Russia and China look determined not to allow NATO to launch a Libya-style intervention in another country under the United Nations Security Council’s mandate. On matters of war and peace, the Security Council has become deadlocked, such is the loss of trust.

What does all this mean? A little more than twenty years after U.S.-Soviet hostilities ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, we are in the midst of a new cold war. The term is not used widely yet, for many twenty-first century conflicts in South and West Asia, and Africa, are being fought in the name of the “war on terror” or “humanitarian intervention.” However, the true characteristics of these interventions are becoming clear. The current hostilities involving the West and its allies––and the rest––in many of the same arenas where the last cold war was fought amount to a new cold war.

The primary objective of Western powers is two-fold: to secure the energy resources and markets in dollar-rich oil exporting countries, and to see that those owning strategic resources do not become too independent of the West. The challenge to the West this time comes not from one superpower like the defunct USSR. The challenge comes from Russia, China, India, South Africa and Brazil, South America’s economic giant.

The twentieth-century Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West was for the spoils left after the defeat of Germany and Japan in the Second World War. The devastating defeat of the Axis Powers and the emergence of two ideologically opposite superpowers in 1945 meant that the world map was ready to be redrawn.

That the United States and the Soviet Union became locked into hostilities for control of resources after 1945 was no surprise. The surprise was how short-lived the Soviet-U.S. Cold War was, lasting just about four decades. And how rapid was the collapse of the USSR, the other superpower that had fought so gallantly against Hitler’s army and looked invincible merely a decade before its demise in late 1991.

Events since then, particularly in the last decade, illustrate certain characteristics of imperial behavior. Imperial powers do not disarm willingly. Either the presence of rivals is a reason to stay ahead in the race or to catch up. Or the ambition to expand the empire for resources and markets, and grandiose delusions, are powerful incentives to continue militarization. Imperial decline occurs only when forced by events.

During the Cold War in the last century, wealth was concentrated in the capitalist West. The Soviet Union made an historic blunder in investing disproportionately vast resources in the military-industrial complex and weaponization instead of uplifting the people’s living standards and encouraging them to create wealth.

The new century is very different. The United States has the largest and most destructive arsenal in the world. But it is because too much of the dollar money earned by the people goes to America’s military-industrial complex. Of the total military expenditure worldwide, the United States, a country under enormous debt, spends nearly 43 percent on defense. It is six times greater than China and twelve times more than Russia. The cost is gigantic, $698 billion in 2010. Others must pay the price.

In a distorted capitalist system, workers are jobless, or on depressed wages, in increasing numbers. Wealth inequalities, already alarming, continue to widen. Businesses close and unemployment rises. Public services are cut, productivity sinks and, most crucially, access to higher education becomes more and more difficult. It all points to a bleak future.

The new cold war is unlike the twentieth-century U.S.-Soviet hostilities, for there is not one power challenging America’s global supremacy, but many disparate forces. One significant factor responsible for the new cold war is the movement of economic power from the West to countries like China, Russia emerging as an energy giant, and India with its vast young population. Another is that the West finds itself up against ideological challenges from an array of nationalist forces, religious and secular, from Asia to Africa and South America.

One of the main differences between the West and the rest is that while the United States has become prone to waging wars, the others do not display the same readiness to go to war. They are more tactical. The former indicates the thinking in the West that time is limited to reverse the tide, which can only be done by military interventions. The latter is a more artful approach based on the foundations of patience and strategic collaboration. Remember the words of Confucius: “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”

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South Africa, the Dalai Lama and China’s Muscular Diplomacy

The question of human rights is never disconnected from politics. The latest controversy over the Dalai Lama’s visa application to visit South Africa has brought the subject to the fore again. The exiled Tibetan leader has been invited to attend the former Archbishop of Cape Town and fellow Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday celebrations. He is scheduled to deliver a lecture there in the coming week. The title is “Peace and compassion as catalyst for change.” But the South African government’s reluctance to grant him a visa has generated a heated debate in the press in South Africa and abroad, including India, his home in exile since 1959. There are accusations that Pretoria is going to deny the Dalai Lama permission in order to please China.

Almost every country proclaims its commitment to human rights, but the conduct of international diplomacy is very different in practice. Freedom and human rights are sacrosanct as long as they do not test relations with friendly governments and do not come too close to home. If the Dalai Lama’s visit fails to materialize, as seems likely, this will be the second time in two years that the South African authorities have denied a visa to one of the world’s most revered figures.

In 2009, Pretoria refused him entry to attend a Nobel laureates’ conference. The reason given was that the Dalai Lama’s presence would “detract attention from the 2010 football World Cup.” Then, Desmond Tutu, a central figure in the struggle against White minority rule before the end of apartheid in 1994, denounced it as “disgraceful,” accusing the government of “shamelessly succumbing to Chinese pressure.” That event was cancelled. As on the previous occasion, Pretoria denies acting under Chinese pressure now.

That relations with China play no part in the South African government’s policy toward the Dalai Lama is difficult to believe. Pretoria’s dithering over his visa application came as South Africa’s deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe, embarked on a mission to Beijing to attract Chinese investment. China’s clout has been important for South Africa’s entry into the club of emerging economies, Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC). South Africa’s “economic miracle” in less than two decades is, in large part, due to Chinese investment. The South African deputy president’s host in Beijing was Vice President Xi Jinping, tipped to be China’s next leader.

The Dalai Lama last visited South Africa in 1996. Nelson Mandela was president and post-apartheid South Africa, though struggling, was at its zenith. It would be fair to note that subsequent presidents, Thabo Mbeki and Alfred Zuma, are no Mandela, who is now too old and frail to be active in public life. From the heights of idealism and adulation for Mandela and his country, South Africa has entered the arena of twenty-first century geopolitics and alliances based on immediate self-interest. In the first six months of 2011, South African exports to China amounted to nearly 40 billion rands; imports from China were a little more than that. The South African economy is booming. Like other emerging countries, South Africa plays an increasingly important role in the geopolitics of the African continent and beyond. Not even Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama can be allowed to get in the way.

It is necessary to cast our eyes beyond the current topic of concern and remember other examples of how geopolitical considerations undermine the principle of decency and rationale underpinning justice and morality. In October 2009, Barack Obama canceled a meeting with the Dalai Lama in Washington, as the Chinese official campaign against him took on a particularly aggressive tone. Obama thus became the first American president not to welcome the Dalai Lama in the White House since 1990. Stung by widespread criticism and amid worsening relations with Beijing over a multibillion dollar weapons deal between the United States and Taiwan, the U.S. president did meet the Dalai Lama in 2010.

In 2008, Gordon Brown, then British prime minister, chose not to meet the Tibetan spiritual leader at his official residence, 10 Downing Street, for fear of offending the Chinese leadership. Instead, Brown had a brief meeting with him at the official residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, also refused to see him, as did the Estonian prime minister and speaker of parliament this year.

The South African government’s failure not to even respond to the Dalai Lama’s visa application is extraordinary. It is offensive to him and offensive to Desmond Tutu, who invited him. It is another episode in a long sequence of timid submissions by world leaders in the face of China’s muscular diplomacy and the West’s decline. That we should witness the absence of real leadership that will stand by what is right is a tragedy.

[END]

India’s High-Stakes Foreign Policy

HNN (George Mason University, October 11, 2010)

President Barack Obama’s forthcoming visit to India in November comes amid a noticeable increase in tensions in US-Pakistan relations and a favorable climate for Washington’s ties with India. His visit to China almost exactly a year ago was a prickly reminder to Delhi of Beijing’s undeniable importance for Washington. However, Obama’s China experience ended with no significant breakthrough on relations with Iran or trade, heavily in favor of Beijing because of an artificially low exchange rate of the Chinese currency. The trade war has intensified in the year gone by, with Congress recently passing legislation that would punish China for undervaluing its currency.

On the other hand, the muted resentment felt in India’s official circles at Obama’s victory in the 2008 presidential election has evaporated to some extent. In a strange contrast to the negative sentiment about the Bush presidency in the United States and much of the world, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India even told the outgoing president at a White House news conference in September 2008, “The people of India deeply love you.” Such was the Indian prime minister’s gratitude to George W. Bush for delivering the civilian nuclear deal to India in the final months of his presidency.

Nearly two years on, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and India’s External Affairs Minister S. M. Krishna met in Washington in late September, they dubbed President Obama’s forthcoming India visit as a “defining moment.” The United States thanked India for its “commitment to Afghanistan.” Washington and New Delhi both have their own imperatives. Pakistan has not delivered the expected in the “war on terrorism,” but remains crucial for the US administration. As Obama approaches his preferred deadline of July 2011 for starting a “drawdown” of troops from Afghanistan, India is emerging as a willing ally for America’s strategy in the region, and an enthusiastic agent to counter China, indisputably the superior military and economic power. As Obama ponders ways of reducing direct military involvement in Afghanistan after Iraq, the administration needs to contract out its role to proxies, with India the principal contender. The Obama administration and the Congress Party-led coalition government in India are playing for high stakes, but the stakes are higher for India in the long run.  

At this point, I want to make some general observations that reflect the situation in South Asia, and how this situation has evolved. Foreign policy is to protect national security and prosperity. The goal is to develop relations as harmonious as possible, to avoid war which is destructive and bad for prosperity. Successful foreign policy depends on internal peace, because internal conflict almost always invites outside interest, if not intervention, and enflames unrest. India has a serious conflict in Kashmir and uprisings in other deprived parts of the country by tribal communities, inappropriately labeled as Maoists. India’s relations with neighbors are hostile, adversarial, and reflect distrust and suspicion. Yet the Indian elite’s consciousness is heavily occupied with achieving impressive statistics of growth – 7, 8, maybe 10 percent. Questions such as: “How can we compete with, and beat, China and build military power.” India’s ambition is to become a superpower, and soon. All very impressive, but there is a cost – growing poverty, hunger, small farmers constantly squeezed, city slums and eviction of slum-dwellers. There are two very different narratives running side by side in rising India.  

India’s foreign policy has become distinctly radicalized over the last sixty years. Its historical development is worth examining to understand the mindset and ambitions of India’s neoliberal elite today. I will look at certain noteworthy events that have played a determining part in this process in the decades gone by.  

The 1950s were the most difficult period for India, an infant, fragile nation. Yet in a way, it was also the best period. India was known for its huge capacity to provide moral leadership in the growing community of emerging nations. It stood for values such as peaceful coexistence, non-alignment and the need for self-sufficiency to reinforce its independent status. It seemed willing to walk away from instant gains in the interest of these objects. Then two significant events happened in the 1960s: the defeat by China in October 1962, and two years later China becoming a nuclear weapons state. Soon after came territorial gains for India in the 1965 war with Pakistan. Many Indians felt that their country had shaken off the 1962 defeat against China. But the Tashkent agreement reversed those gains under Soviet pressure, because the Indian army was required to withdraw from the territory it had seized from Pakistan.

Two further events happened in the 1970s. First, the 1971 India-Pakistan war that resulted in the dismemberment of Pakistan and the emergence of Bangladesh in its eastern half. That was when India finally shook off the “China syndrome.” Second, in 1974 India carried out its first nuclear test, which triggered Pakistan’s nuclear program. With Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal a reality now, that advantage, at least with respect to Islamabad, has diminished. In 1975 the Bangladesh leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated in a military coup. India lost a close ally and much of the strategic gains made in the 1971 war. Looking back, the 1971 victory over Pakistan has been a mixed blessing. In the late 1980s Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi thought it was possible to impose peace in Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict under the India-Sri Lanka Accord. He sent a large military force to the island state. It did not work out as had been intended. On the contrary, the feeling was reinforced among neighbors that India was behaving like the “big brother.”

India went through a domestic trauma in 1992. Hindu fundamentalists demolished a medieval mosque in the northern town of Ayodhya, where they claimed Lord Ram was born. Communal riots followed in which thousands, mostly Muslims, perished. These events signified the rise of Hindu nationalism in India, a mirror image of the phenomenon of Muslim fundamentalism in Pakistan in the previous decade of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. By helping Islamist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan with weapons and money to fight the Soviet occupation forces, the United States had greatly contributed to the phenomenon of Islamic fundamentalism throughout the region. In the 1990s reverberations began to be felt across the border in the form of Hindu radicalization, with India witnessing the ascent of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party to power. Those events radicalized not only Indian society, but also the country’s foreign policy.

The irony was that India, with its illustrious past, reacted at best with muted criticism of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. And it came to support the US-led invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Then as now the primary motive was to counter Pakistan and China. Today, the environment around India is unfriendly. So India has built a flyover – a super highway – to Israel, bypassing the Muslim and Arab world. That flyover goes from Tel Aviv straight to Washington. The space between India and Israel has been left to other players. As India and Pakistan remain locked in a decades-long cold war, each country maneuvers to have the United States punish the other. And each of the two rivals seeks to demonstrate that it, not the other, is the true ally of America in the war on terrorism. But as has been seen once again in recent years, abuse of military power against own citizens and those of other countries has a corrosive and destructive effect in the long run. India should consider whether its foreign policy would do better with a different balance of military and referent power.  

[END]

Why, oh why?

Deepak Tripathi cannot understand why China and Russia would support the United States on the issue of sanctions against Iran when Washington’s real agenda is regime change. To see Iran fall into the American sphere in a region where most regimes already are in the American sphere? It would be like chopping the branch one is sitting on.