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M.L. Sondhi and Ashok Kapur

October 3, 2002

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has regained the political high ground after his visit to New York.  His visit to the Maldives showed that India will also play a major role in the events and dynamics of the region.  He was articulate in Male in defining India’s relations with ‘small states’ in terms which could be extended to West Asia (the Middle East).  It is now necessary that old Cold War thinking of some sections of the establishment should not be allowed to restrain and paralyse Indian foreign policy.

The Indian government has had a policy of blind adherence to Saddam Hussein which has benefited Saddam rather than the Iraqi people who continue to face the crippling consequences of UN sanctions.  Saddam’s regime remains a dangerous one-dangerous for the Iraqis, dangerous in relation to its neighbours (both Kuwait and Iraq), dangerous for the Kurds, and in general for the well being of the Middle East which is already explosive.  The time is ripe for the Indian government to shed its one sided policy and to consider the advantages of a post-Saddam Iraq that is at peace with the great powers including America, Russia and the European powers like France and Germany, and which is at peace with itself and its neighbours.  Saddam’s Iraq raises a number of issues, and if India is to be taken seriously in the Middle East and in Asia as a mature, internationalist democracy and as an advocate of Muslim prosperity and advancement as an outward looking internationalist grouping of countries, then Delhi needs to face the issues quickly and realistically.  Foreign policy is about national interests but it is also about international standards of civilized conduct which is measured by adherence to accepted common obligations.

The shift in India’s position should be based on two types of consideration.  The first is legal and moral in nature.  Saddam was the aggressor in attacking Kuwait in an unprovoked way in 1991.  This was a breach of international law and it triggered the right of individual and collective self-defence.  In addition, still on the legal and moral plane, it is obvious that the Saddam regime had voluntarily accepted the obligations of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and then went on to breach its legal promise clandestinely.  An obligation is an obligation and the proper course of action would have been for Iraq to serve notice under the NPT and quit citing sovereign interest.  It did no such thing unlike North Korea which indicated an intention to do so.  Later, following Desert Storm it accepted UN inspections and promised not to seek weapons of mass destruction.  UN inspectors found such weapons, destroyed them, and now the issue is to resume the inspections which were terminated in 1998 to convince the world that it is in full compliance of earlier commitments.  To the extent that Saddam remains a ruthless military dictator, is a menace in the neighbourhood (Kuwaitis and Israelis remains fearful of Saddam’s weapons and intentions), and if it can be shown conclusively that Iraq has sponsored terrorism (the case has not been made yet) then Delhi should distance itself from Saddam now and do so publicly.

The second consideration, a practical one, also shows the merit of shifting India’s position vis--vis Saddam now.  Saddam is getting isolated, and diplomacy is about developing one’s comparative advantages and leadership position.  India should take the lead in the region in expressing a well thought out position on the issue of Saddam Hussein and show that it possesses the maturity of vision to address international questions of pressing importance.  Actions about West Asia now have a resonance among moderate Muslim countries in the Middle East as well as Southeast Asia and Central Asia in addition to the audience among the industrial democracies of the West and Russia.  This is not the time for inaction or the recycled old speech that goes back for instance to the position of the Gujral government in 1991.  Prime Minister Vajpayee has a dream to tame communal passions within India.  He should also reveal his vision about taming the looming civil war between the international predators who seek to menace the neighbourhood, and those who resist the law of the jungle.  He must speak in a context that is bigger than Pakistan and China but one which takes on the issue of the governance within a country and externally.

President Bush has a complex agenda over Iraq.  He is making his case in terms of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.  Some say he also has an eye on Iraqi oil – to ensure secure and cheaper supply for the industrial democracies, and for another purpose.  If a Hamid Karzai can be brought into play in Baghdad, oil politics can be managed to many countries advantage as they are now being dealt with in Central Asia/Caucasus region.  This way, the USA can squeeze and reform Saudi Arabia which is suffering strains internally because the Saudi population has sympathy for Osama bin Laden’s line, and externally, because the Saudi regime has promoted the export of Wahabism which has menaced areas as far as Chechnya, by Afghanistan in the Taliban days, and in Kashmir as a result of the training of militants in the Pakistani madrassas.  In other words, Bush and company seek a fundamental change in the geo-politics of the vast Central Asia, Middle Eastern sphere.  There is now a belated recognition in the American political class that international politics and American foreign policy cannot be sustained for long on the basis of capitalist greed and the language of military power.  International values are important and necessary for sustained and durable relations.  There is now a push to build democracies in the arc from Israel to Japan.  Political pluralism accommodates diversity – regional, ethnic, religious and economic differences and an open political process creates opportunities to remedy economic and social inequities.  The Middle East street is seething, partly as a revolt against American policies in the Middle East and also in part because the Muslim youth – a growing segment of the Arab population, faces poverty, unemployment and a sense of hopelessness while autocratic regimes thrive.  Saudis and the Iraqis are examples of this problem.  The American agenda is partly tied to WMD and oil politics but it is also to curb Islamic extremism which comes from frustration with domestic and external issues.  Regime change in Iraq by coercive means is likely.  China and others will fall in line with American requirements once they have their piece of the bargain.  Opportunism reins supreme in Beijing’s approach to the Iraq question.  Iraqi regime change as well as regime change in Palestine, and later in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan is also desirable.  One can imagine a process of regime change which started in Kabul, moves to Baghdad and then shifts towards Riyadh and Islamabad.  (Iran is already involved in the democratic process and there is a fierce struggle between the modernizers and the religious orthodoxy).  Here the radical Middle East states need to appreciate the value of political pluralism which is the foundation of most SE Asian countries including Malaysia and Indonesia.

Because Saddam declines to play by international rules he accepted earlier and which are the basis of international society (e.g. the injunction against aggression) he must be dealt with now on the basis of principles and not expediency.  If remittances by Indians in Baghdad decline, they will likely increase from Kabul (where Indians are returning with promise of tax holiday) and the Gulf kingdoms remain home to many overseas Indian workers.  Indians should take a close look at the opportunities Kuwait offers.  It is a potential Arab Singapore.  It wants a stable and a long-term relationship with India. It is reform minded.  It can help Indian oil needs.  Its strategic location offers value to the Indian navy.  It is well disposed towards India. It is moving slowly towards democracy, and its politics are generally moderate compared to the rigidities of the Saudi regime.  Furthermore, as Vajpayee pushes his look-east policy, he also needs to look to the moderate Muslim countries to his immediate west and build bridges with them.  India needs to line up with the US against Saddam not only because all powers including Russia, France and China will do so for the right price, but also because, and this is important, Indians need to differentiate between relations with moderate and likeminded Muslim countries and others.

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