Common Sense About India?

It is perhaps a sad commentary that daily bombings and deaths, mostly among Iraqi civilians, are considered so relatively normal that it seems all right to focus on other parts of the world this week. Unfortunately, chaos of a kind that few reasonably realistic observers, including most military figures and even Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, consider likely to be brought under control any time soon, has become what Iraq is. Whether because he is truly deluded or because he thinks admitting the truth would be seen as a sign of weakness (a common fear of weak people), this number does not include President Bush, at least in public.

But he is what he is, and we have come to understand that as well.

President Bush still shows a remarkable ability to stay on message, even in light of the latest attacks in London, which seem to have fizzled but demonstrate that terrorists can strike almost at will in a relatively open society. The Britons have discovered that the notion that we are fighting in Iraq to avoid attacks at home is an invidious lie, and it is more than possible that the United States will come face to face with this unfortunate and unwelcome truth some time soon. Yet the president continues to mouth the old discredited bromides about how we are really starting to win in Iraq and that’s keeping the "evil ones" over there.

Thoughts on Londonistan

A few preliminary thoughts on the London bombing before moving to other topics:

While direction or coordination from abroad is certainly possible and even likely, there are plenty of homegrown potential and actual terrorists in Great Britain and most European countries. There are undoubtedly some in the United States, and they are not confined to poor neighborhoods.

In some ways, as our recent experience suggests (not to mention memories of the revolutionary aspects of the 1960s), relatively abstract notions like killing and dying for a larger cause can appeal to the relatively educated and prosperous more readily than to people so poor that they have to struggle to get by each day. There are terrorists in our midst, almost certainly, and it will be extremely difficult to identify them before they strike because they won’t appear obviously abnormal in advance.

This unpleasant truth doesn’t have to make us paranoid. An open society is inevitably vulnerable, especially to somebody willing to die to kill others. But an open society, as Great Britain is demonstrating once again, is remarkably resilient, perhaps even strengthened by adversity. Becoming a suspicious surveillance society is not only unnecessary, it could be counterproductive.

Return to India

Despite any lack of respect for the ignorant and exploitive way the president has responded to the incidents in London – which pretty much defines almost everything he does that has even a tangential relationship to the holy war on terror – his meetings earlier in the week with President Manmohan Singh of India and Australian Prime Minister John Howard showed a certain respect for realism in foreign policy.

I’m hoping – perhaps beyond hope – that with the election campaign safely behind and with overstretch and misallocation of resources making further imperial adventures beyond Iraq unlikely, there may be a chance for a modest resurgence of realism in this administration, at least on certain matters. India seems to be one of them.

To those who remember the sometimes contentious and troubled relations between India and the United States, especially during the Cold War, the sight of Bush and Indian President Manmohan Singh rubbing shoulders and proclaiming eternal friendship might have seemed a little jarring. President Bush’s offer to change U.S. laws to allow the transfer of civilian-oriented nuclear power technology to India might even seem strange to those who remember the trepidation following the testing of nuclear weapons by India and its eternal rival Pakistan in 1998.

India during the Cold War was conspicuously "nonaligned" between the Soviet bloc and the West, and many U.S. commentators viewed India as being more aligned with the Soviets than nonaligned, as for certain periods it probably was. In those days, insofar as any Americans were interested in and sympathetic to India, they tended to be people of the Left, even the far Left. So why is a rapprochement occurring under a Republican administration?

This is not entirely anomalous. Ted Carpenter of the libertarian Cato Institute reminded me that Bush gave a speech at the Reagan Library in 1999, and Condoleezza Rice wrote an article for foreign affairs in 2000, in which they advocated a closer relationship with India. Ted thinks the impulse was sidetracked by 9/11, but Monday’s meeting suggests it might be back on track.

New Circumstances

These developments should not, perhaps, be especially surprising. While India and the United States are short of being strategic or military allies, things have changed since the end of the Cold War, especially with India liberalizing and desocializing its economy (largely the work of Manmohan Singh when he was finance minister in the early 1990s), experiencing significant economic growth, and becoming a power whose influence and potential influence in Asia cannot be ignored.

India’s nuclear tests in 1998 generated something of a knee-jerk response of imposing limits on nuclear technology transfers. But 9/11 caused a reassessment of India’s importance, and Monday represents a further warming of relations. It might even have been part of a long-term plan.

To some extent, given the perceived importance of Pakistan in the wake of 9/11, that event may have delayed warmer relations between the U.S. and India. But India has not only continued to grow economically and as a trade partner, it has also shared intelligence on Islamic terrorist threats in Central Asia and elsewhere. So closer relations seemed inevitable.

Pragmatic Approach

U.S. willingness to allow civilian nuclear technology sharing with India reflects a pragmatic approach to nuclear proliferation by the Bush administration, which is hardly surprising given the administration’s lack of fondness for multilateral international treaties.

Under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, whose roots extend to the Eisenhower era (and which India has declined to sign), countries are supposed to get access to civilian nuclear technology only if they give up nuclear weapons. But the treaty, quite frankly, besides amounting in some respects to a cartel among countries that already had nukes to prevent others from joining the club, has not exactly been a rip-roaring success. It certainly didn’t prevent India from acquiring nuclear capability.

The Bush administration apparently calculates that India isn’t about to give up weapons capability, so it might as well work with a rising power that to date has not shared its technology with rogue states or terrorists.

And there’s also the possibility that India could serve as a counterbalance to growing Chinese power in Asia – although it will be a delicate balancing act, in that India and China are also seeking to reduce long-held suspicions between the two Asian powerhouses.

Chinese Puzzles

However, in a week in which the Defense Department issued a report that paints China as a rising military threat (which gives the department a better rationale to lobby for the mammoth weapons systems of the Cold War era that it dearly loves but that are not only useless but counterproductive against stateless terrorists), Bush came down as something of a realist on China as well. While meeting the press with John Howard, he said of the relationship with China, "It’s a good relationship, but it’s a complex relationship." He acknowledged disagreements over human rights, religious freedom, and some trade issues, but avoided bellicosity.

There are reasons some might find it unattractive for Bush to adopt this stance toward China. A lot of U.S. businessmen are enraptured by the commercial possibilities of increased trade with China, and Bush is nothing if not friendly to big business interests. If this leads to avoiding the kind of knee-jerk hostile attitude toward China, which some in his administration would no doubt wish to revive in time – a military-industrial complex needs a semi-credible threat to bemoan, after all – it might not be all that bad.

There are always risks in international relationships, but insofar as they are built mainly on mutual economic interests, more so than grand strategic and imperial visions, closer relations between India and the United States and China and the United States carry more opportunity than danger.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).