M.L. Sondhi and Ashok Kapur

The Pioneer, October 3, 2002

Prime Minister Atal Bihari 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 that could be extended to West Asia.  It is necessary that old Cold War thinking of some sections of the establishment should not be allowed to restrain and paralyse Indian foreign policy.

The Government has had a policy of blind adherence to Mr. Saddam Hussein which has benefited the Iraqi President more than the Iraqi people who continue to face the crippling consequences of UN sanctions.  Mr. Hussein’s regime remains dangerous for the Iraqis, dangerous to its neighbours (both Kuwait and Iraq), dangerous for the Kurds, and dangerous for the well-being of the already explosive West Asian region.  The time is ripe for the Government to shed its one sided policy and to consider the advantages of a post-Saddam Iraq at peace with the great powers including the US, France, Germany and Russia, and at peace with itself and its neighbours.

Mr. Hussein’s Iraq raises a number of issues.  If India is to be taken seriously in Asia (and West Asia in particular), as a mature, internationalist democracy and an advocate of Muslim prosperity and advancement in the form of an outward-looking internationalist grouping of countries, New Delhi must face these issues quickly and realistically.  Foreign policy is about national interests, but it is also about international standards of civilised conduct which are measured by adherence to commonly accepted obligations.

The shift in India’s position should be based on two types of consideration.  The first is legal and moral in nature.  Mr. Hussein played aggressor by attacking Kuwait in an unprovoked way in 1991.  This was a breach of international law and triggered the right of individual and collective self-defence.  His regime had accepted the obligations of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and then went on to breach its legal promise clandestinely Iraq’s proper course of action would have been to serve notice under the NPT and quit, citing sovereign interest.  It did no such thing, unlike North Korea which indicated its intentions.  Later, following Operation Desert Storm, Iraq accepted UN inspections and promised not to seek weapons of mass destruction (WMD); UN inspectors found and destroyed such weapons.

Now the issue is to resume inspections terminated in 1998 so that the world is convinced it is fully complying with earlier commitments.  To the extent that Mr. Hussein remains a ruthless military dictator, is a menace in the neighbourhood (Kuwaitis and Israelis remain fearful of his weapons and intentions) and if it can be shown conclusively that Iraq has sponsored terrorism (the case has not been made yet), then New Delhi should distance itself from Mr. Hussein now, and do so publicly.   

The second consideration is practical, Mr. Hussein is getting isolated, and diplomacy is about developing one’s comparative advantages. India should take the lead in the region in expressing a well-thought out position and show it has the mature vision to address international questions of pressing importance.  Actions related to West Asia have a resonance among moderate Muslim countries in the region as well as in Southeast Asia and Central Asia.  This is in addition to the audience among the industrial democracies of the West, and Russia.  This is not the time for inaction or recycled old speeches going back to the IK Gujral Government.

Prime Minister Vajpayee has a dream of taming communal passions within India.  He should seek to tame the looming civil war between international predators who menace their neighbourhoods and those who resist the law of the jungle. He must speak in a context bigger than Pakistan and China, one which takes on the issue of governance within a country and externally.

US President George W. Bush has a complex agenda on Iraq.  He is making his case in terms of Iraqi WMDs.  Some say he also has an eye on Iraqi oil for secure and cheaper supply to the industrial democracies, and for another purpose.  If a Hamid Karzai can be brought into play in Baghdad, oil politics can be managed to the advantage of many countries, the way it is now being dealt with in the Central Asia/Caucasus region.  This way, the US can squeeze and reform Saudi Arabia.  The latter is suffering strains internally because the Saudi population sympathises with Osama bin Laden, and externally because the Saudi regime has promoted export of Wahabbism which has menaced Chechnya, Afghanistan in the Taliban days and Kashmir because of training of militants in Pakistani madarsas.

Bush and Company seek a fundamental geo-political change in the vast Central Asian-West Asian sphere. There is a belated realisation in the American political class that international politics and US foreign policy cannot be sustained on the basis of capitalist greed and military power.  International values are necessary for sustained and durable relations.  There is a push to build democracies in the arc from Israel to Japan.  An-open political process creates opportunities to remedy economic and social inequities.  The West Asian street is seething, partly as a revolt against US policies in the region, and in part because Muslim youth – a growing segment of the Arab population – face poverty, unemployment and hopelessness while autocratic regimes thrive.

The Saudis and the Iraqis are examples of this problem.  The US agenda is partly tied to WMD and oil politics, but it also seeks to curb Islamic extremism resulting from frustration with domestic and external issues.  Regime change in Iraq by coercive means is likely.  China and others will fall in line once they have their piece of the bargain.  Opportunism reigns supreme in Beijing’s approach to the Iraq question.  Iraqi regime change as well as Palestinian leadership change, and later regime change in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, are also desirable.  One can imagine a process which started in Kabul, moves to Baghdad and then shifts towards Riyadh and Islamabad. (Iran is already involved in the democratic process and is witnessing a fierce struggle between a modernizers and religious orthodoxy).  The radical West Asian states need to appreciate the value of political pluralism, the foundation of most Southeast Asian countries including Malaysia and Indonesia.

Because Mr. Hussein declines to play by the international rules he accepted earlier, he must be dealt with on the basis of principles and not expediency.  If remittances by Indians in Baghdad decline, they are likely to increase from Kabul (where Indians are returning with the promise of a tax holiday).  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, 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 slowly moving towards democracy, and its politics is generally moderate compared to the Saudi regime’s rigidities.  Also, as Mr. Vajpayee pushes his look-East policy, he also needs to consider the moderate Muslim countries to his immediate West and build bridges with them. 

India needs to line up with the US against Mr. Hussein 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 like-minded Muslim countries and others.    

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