Thursday 2 September 2004

Whose Truth? (Far Eastern Economic Review)

Book review by Prof Nalapat 'Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy and the Bomb - Strobe Talbott'

Nalapat, Madhav. Far Eastern Economic Review; Hong Kong Vol. 167, Iss. 35,  (Sep 2, 2004): 54-55.

BOOKS: U.S. ENVOYS IN ASIA Whose Truth? Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott's memoir shows a failure of American diplomacy, writes Madhav Nalapat [Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy and the Bomb] by Strobe Talbott. Brookings Institution Press. $27.95

WHEN THOSE WHO HELP to make history write it, the result is a memoir that dresses up the truth. This is clear from former United States Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott's new book, Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy and the Bomb, a self-absorbed view of the U.S. intervention in the nuclear stand-off between India and Pakistan that began in 1998.

Talbott says the personal diplomacy that he and then-Indian External Affairs Minister Jaswarit Singh undertook for 22 months starting in June 1998 represented "the turning point in U.S.-Indian relations." The book is peppered with the view that only skilful U.S. diplomacy averted a nuclear war between India and Pakistan.

According to Talbott, Pakistan's army was "preparing its nuclear forces for deployment" in 1999. Indeed, he says, there was the risk of a world war, as "Pakistan might seek support from China and various Arab states, while India would perhaps turn to its old protector Russia and even to its newer partner Israel."

In reality, Beijing had already indicated to Islamabad that it would not rescue Pakistan in a conflict, a point acknowledged by Talbott himself a few pages later. Meanwhile, President Boris Yeltsin's Russia arid Israel were both equally unlikely to snub Washington in favour of India.

According to Talbott, Beijing's feverish armament programme was not to counteract the U.S., but India, whose "draft" nuclear doctrine "would surely provoke an acceleration of China's nuclear build-up." Of course, he says, China itself was not a threat to India. Talbott approvingly quotes former President Bill Clinton telling then-Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to follow the example of Brazil, "which had done the right thing in not going nuclear."

But Brazil may have acted differently if, like India, it had two nuclear neighbours, had fought both in the recent past and was tackling a continuing proxy war with one of them. And, nowhere in the book does Talbott accept that China might be a factor in Indian security strategy.

Talbott places great value on symbols such as membership of the United Nations Security Council, rather than on India's strategic muscle, demonstrated in the 1998 nuclear explosions that forced the Clinton administration to seriously engage India, or the high rate of growth that has kept New Delhi on the U.S. radar ever since.

Talbott follows the line then hewed by the U.S. government's South Asia specialists in hyphenating India with Pakistan. After the 1999 Pakistani incursion in Kargil, Talbott writes, the U.S. put its views "bluntly" to both the Indian and Pakistani envoys. They would be treated equally as "proliferators," though India, unlike Pakistan, has an impeccable record in avoiding cross-border proliferation.

Talbott would have us believe that then-Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif came uninvited to Washington after the Kargil incursion, when newspapers reported that Clinton had invited both him and Vajpayee to a photo-opportunity in the White House Rose Garden, in the style of the famous meeting that had been held there in 1993 between Palestinian liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. It was a bit of American political theatre that the canny Vajpayee refused to join in. Officials in Delhi were aware that Sharif had been given a face-saving cover to what was a military rout. As some had foretold, the Pakistani army described the Clinton-Sharif meeting as a sellout, and moved against the luckless prime minister.

The relevance of Talbott's book is a grudging admission that U.S. policy in South Asia has been a failure. Pakistan continues to tacitly support militants in Kashmir, while India stubbornly refuses to disarm, in the face of persistent U.S. efforts to ease China's fears. We are likely to see more of the same mix of hypocrisy and self-delusion that has made "U.S. diplomacy" an oxymoron.