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A war gone astray

A war gone astray

Author: Brahma Chellaney
Publication: The Hindustan Times
Date: September 10, 2002
URL: http://www.hindustantimes.com/news/181_62860,00120001.htm

The hoopla surrounding the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist strikes only helps highlight that the focus of the Bush administration a year later is not on rooting out global terrorism but on getting rid of a toothless but unsavoury dictator, who, far from being a menace to US security, is not a threat even to his neighbours.

Yet, Bush's obsession with Saddam Hussein is such that the president has allowed himself to be distracted from more pressing priorities and America's global leadership responsibilities. It has not occurred to Bush that he is needlessly aiding the rise of anti-US sentiment in the world.

The attraction of a 'winnable' war against Saddam versus an interminable, unwinnable war against terrorism is such that the more Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar have become difficult to trace, the more menacing and larger-than-life Saddam has emerged in Bush's portrayal.

When Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee meets with Bush, he will discover that the latter's mind is preoccupied with Iraq. The series of ongoing high-level Indo-US meetings were designed to help revive the momentum in bilateral relations. But their timing is hardly favourable.

Before last September 11, India's was a voice in the wilderness.  Since then, India's voice is being heard internationally, although not to the degree that would significantly ease the terrorist pressures on it. India's gain, however, has been counterbalanced by Pervez Musharraf's emergence as the largest beneficiary of the events of the past year.

The more vexing development is that the Indo-US relationship, which had been progressing speedily under Bush, has begun to lose its momentum in recent months as the focus of official dealings has shifted from bilateral to Indo-Pakistan issues. Simultaneously, the mood has soured, especially since the issuance of the US travel advisory and the State Department's opposition to the Israeli Arrow anti-missile system sale. Without a revival of the momentum in bilateral ties, however, India risks undermining its enhanced international profile that has resulted from closer cooperation with Washington.

Yet, there is no way India can be seen as supporting US military strikes on Iraq - a potential litmus test of friendship for those in Washington determined to oust Saddam at any cost. But if war is unleashed on Iraq, can India even stay tight-lipped? India faces a real dilemma: keep quiet for the sake of warmer ties with the US and be seen as indirectly backing undisguised aggression, or oppose the strikes and risk losing the new closer relations.

A bigger issue for India is the future of Bush's war against terror, a war that has gone astray in terms of its goals. A year after identifying Al-Qaeda and the Taliban as its biggest enemies, the US has failed to capture the top bosses of either, although Al-Jazeera is able to interview such figures in Pakistan. But the US has gone on to name a new enemy.

India has an important stake in the future of the US war on terror.  With many terrorist nests in Afghanistan destroyed, FBI raids on suspected terrorist hideouts in Pakistan recurring, and the jehadis on the run, Indian security has benefited. Indian security, unlike US security, is imperilled not so much by non-State terrorist cells as by State-cultivated and State-protected terrorist bands. But when non- State terrorist actors are in retreat, the Pakistani State would be harder pressed to export terror to India at the same level.

It thus follows logically that Indian security interests are linked to how the US war against terror carries on. It is not good news for India that that war is going off its course on to a new target whose links with international terrorism, by the Bush team's own reluctant admission, are questionable. It is for that reason that Bush is now seeking to publicly arraign Saddam on phoney charges related to weapons of mass destruction because he knows such weapons evoke popular revulsion.

As a wounded tiger that can occasionally roar but not kill or maul, Saddam would, if allowed to stay on in power, serve US interests, as he has done for the past decade and more. The US needs 'rogue' emblems to rationalise its military presence in regions of concern, its non-proliferation and export-control policies, and its sanctions approach. And Saddam is the best-known symbol of a 'rogues' gallery' whose other figures, except for North Korea's Kim Jong-Il, have either been de-fanged by US policy (including Libya's Muammar Qaddafi) or been rendered tame (like Cuba's Fidel Castro). So much so that Washington has officially dropped the term 'rogue state'.

With such success, Bush ought to have kept his attention on the real rogues of the Al-Qaeda type and stepped up pressure on Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for having contributed the most to the rise of fundamentalism and terrorism. But Bush's past seems to be guiding his present thinking. Bush and some of his key team members are from the energy industry and they are eyeing the 10 per cent of the world's oil on which Iraq sits. Their apparent goal is to install a Hamid Karzai in Baghdad.

Bush's bellicose stance on Iraq, in fact, is driven by his successful blending of the war on terror with US energy-security strategy. That has already led the US to build military presence in the oil-exporting Caspian Sea basin and Central Asia and strengthen safeguards on its access to Persian Gulf oil.

In the name of fighting terror, the US has set up a network of forward bases stretching from the Red Sea to the Pacific, making its forces active in the largest array of countries since World War II. US forces are now positioned in five nations adjacent to India - Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan - even as Washington enters into strategic tie-ups of varying types with India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Bush also realises he can never win his war on terror because terrorism, like poverty, is as old as humankind and will remain prevalent. But he can win a war against Iraq by deposing Saddam.

So it is not the world that has changed since last September 11. It is the US that has changed, as shown by Bush's increasingly unilateralist, uncompromising approach to global issues. If the world was changed by any attack, as Vir Sanghvi perceptively pointed out in his Sunday column, it was by the 1945 US nuclear bombing of Hiroshima - an event that has kept the world perpetually hostage to nuclear terror by heralding an era of security pivoted on deterrence.

Today Bush no longer feels the need to 'rally the world' because America's strategic expansion gives it unparalleled reach. In the process, Bush is not heeding the most important lesson of past mistakes, which is that by focusing on politically expedient, narrow goals, the US ended up creating monsters that it now confronts, be it Saddam or Bin Laden.

Bush also does not appreciate that consistency is a virtue in foreign policy. Just as his swagger on Iraq contrasts sharply with his sweet- talk with other dictatorships, Bush flaunts his double standards on the key issues of democracy, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

The international sympathy and open-ended licence to respond that the US won after last September 11 have largely been squandered.  Washington has demonstrated that the war on terror, the new offensive to oust Saddam, and any other campaign would remain primarily an instrument to advance its interests. And those interests under Bush, India should note, are more likely to be of the short-term variety. That is why America's long-term strategic interests on India do not appear to weigh substantially more in US policy than its tactical, short-term interest to prop up the Musharraf dictatorship.

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