Keeping out of America's mess

Published : Sep 12, 2003 00:00 IST

It would be a blunder for New Delhi to become a U.S. camp follower in Iraq and Israel-Palestine just when America's authority there is crumbling.

JUST as the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government embarks on a huge foreign policy misadventure by inviting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on a visit, and as it again contemplates the despatch of troops to Iraq, America's authority in West Asia seems to be crumbling. Within two days of the August 19 attack on the United Nations office in Baghdad killing over 20 people, including its Chief, Sergio Vieira de Mello, Israeli troops killed senior Hamas leader Ismail Abu Shanab in a missile attack - apparently in retaliation for a suicide-bombing of a bus in Jerusalem. With this, the seven-weeks-old ceasefire in Israel-Palestine has collapsed, putting the United States-brokered road map for peace in jeopardy.

These truly momentous events would drag the U.S. deeper into a quagmire. The collapse of the road map could literally mean the end of the road. If what little remains of the leadership of Abu Mazen (whose approval ratings are under 5 per cent among the Palestinians) also disappears, it is unlikely that the U.S.-Israel would find another pliable Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) leader for quite some time.

As for Iraq, the situation there has turned super-critical. The U.S. has panicked and gone to the U.N. Security Council, which it so despises, with a request for a fresh resolution requesting more troops. Just a week earlier, it had arrogantly declared that it had no intention of moving a fresh resolution to please powers (like France and India) which "seek influence in post-war Iraq" but had failed to support the war itself.

Going by a New York Times report, the Americans are leaning heavily on the U.N. to encourage former opponents of the war in Iraq to contribute military aid. Yet, when U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell met U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, he made it clear that the war coalition would continue to command all military forces in Iraq. It would not cede any of its political and economic authority, though the U.N.'s future role "can be discussed in the course of our negotiations on a resolution". In other words, other countries contribute cannon fodder, in return for measly rewards, but they must accept U.S. hegemony and control.

Indian policy-makers, many of whom have been eager to send troops to Iraq, are keenly "watching the evolving situation". Going by selective media briefings, they hope that there would be some form of U.N. authorisation "on the lines of the Afghan or Kosovo models" so that they can stretch the cover of a "U.N. fig-leaf". Under the favoured formula, the so-called Interim Governing Council of Iraq, a U.S. puppet, would invite India to despatch troops and the invitation would be backed up by a Security Council resolution that mandates an outside force to keep the peace in Iraq - on the lines of what NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) is doing in Afghanistan. New Delhi would then send a division-level force to Iraq.

Of a piece with this calculus is the Vajpayee government's keenness to develop a strategic partnership with Israel under its rabidly anti-Palestinian Likud Party leadership. None other than National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra laid out the rationale for this in his May 8 address to the extreme-Zionist American Jewish Committee (AJC) at its 97th annual dinner meeting in Washington. Mishra spoke in "admiration" of the AJC and in "celebration" of "the alliance of free societies involved in combating this scourge [of terrorism]. The U.S., India and Israel have all been prime targets of terrorism. They have to jointly face the same ugly face of modern-day terrorism." He advocated that "a core, consisting of democratic societies" must emerge, "which can take on international terrorism in a holistic and focussed manner ... to ensure that the global campaign against terrorism is pursued to its logical conclusion... "

The U.S.-Israel-India "triad" or "axis" would form the core of this "democratic" alliance. This would have "the political will and moral authority to take bold decisions... It would not get bogged down in definitional and casual arguments about terrorism... " Mishra underscored military means of combating terrorism, dismissing as "nonsense" the idea that terrorism's root causes must be addressed. This too fits snugly with the primarily militaristic approach to any crisis advocated by Sharon and other Likudniks.

According to other selective briefings, Indian policy-makers are eager to "reach out" to Israel not only because it has emerged as a major supplier of military equipment to India (including the likely transfer of the "Phalcon" early warning system, and avionics for the Russian-built Sukhoi-30), but because India wants to have "a greater say" and role, and "greater relevance" in West Asia. (The Indian Express, August 20) According to another "background" briefing (The Pioneer, August 20), India's new approach towards Israel is the result of its conviction that "it is not desirable for a big country like ours to be the echo chamber of any one side in West Asia... New Delhi has gradually come around to acknowledging... that India has crucial interests in the region. `We should not be absent from any peace move in this area because stability in the region is crucial to us... With Israel there is an obvious community of interests'... "

This logic is a recipe for converting India into a meek camp-follower or client of the U.S. as well as yoking it to a special partnership with Israel, just when it is trying to ward off international pressure to agree to the creation of a Palestinian state.

It would be morally outrageous and politically disastrous for India to take this course in pursuit of delusions (influence in West Asia) and on the assumption that the global power-balance has altered so decisively in favour of the U.S. after the Cold War and especially after its military victory in Iraq that "old" issues like non-alignment, democratic reform of the world order, and decolonisation, peace and justice have become irrelevant; "the reality" is that the U.S. is the only power that matters; align with it and prosper; or oppose it and perish.

This view grossly distorts reality. The U.S. has proved that it is a military giant with feet of clay, and that it is incapable of devising a wise political strategy to stabilise Iraq, leave alone combat terrorism. Indeed, Washington has snatched political defeat from the jaws of military victory by turning a country that was not a terrorist threat into a cauldron of discontent and vengeful anger in which Al Qaeda-style extremist-terrorist ideas flourish.

The attack on the U.N. office in Iraq may or may not be the work of non-Iraqi groups, as Western intelligence officers suspect. But it shows how vulnerable and unsafe everybody and everything is in Iraq. It is futile to pretend that opposition to the Anglo-American occupation is confined to the "Sunni heartland" around Baghdad. It is widespread and extends to the Shia centre and south and the Kurdish north (where oil pipelines were sabotaged). The resentment leaves nobody secure.

The resentment's roots are of America's own making. About half of the Iraqis polled by the Iraq Centre for Research and Strategic Studies attribute the anti-US resistance and violence to "provocation" by American forces. The U.S.' failure to provide a minimum of public services and security to the people is compounded by a series of political blunders, including the creation of an interim council which few Iraqis respect, and which is so divided that it cannot elect a full-time president!

The August 19 attack has undermined the image of the U.N. as a relatively invulnerable institution, guarantor of security and Iraq's future "peace-keeper". And yet, as former U.N. Assistant Secretary-General in Iraq Hans von Sponeck says, the attack "isn't a surprise. The Iraqis are angry. The range of anger goes with dissatisfaction about the lack of progress in restoring normalcy, to these extreme forms of hostility President Bush again today repeated that they brought freedom to Iraq. This is not freedom. An externally imposed rather than an Iraqi-made freedom is not real freedom and we will see more of what has happened today as we go along... " - unless the occupation powers change their approach.

It would be foolhardy to respond to this situation by demanding more troops and greater application of force. The U.S. will be tempted to do exactly that - and to bulldoze the U.N., to cut its own military losses. Washington under its neo-conservative leadership will also blame the "foreign hand" and resist the plain fact that the occupation has created an indigenous resistance. The situation is bound to turn messier and uglier as the U.S. makes more and more political mistakes.

THE Israel-Palestine story is no better. Indeed, it may be worse. Washington has shown no real will to bring Sharon to heel and stop him from building an "Apartheid Wall", which is even higher than the Berlin Wall. This will divide not only Israel from the West Bank, but also isolate the West Bank (the largest Palestinian settlement) from East Jerusalem, which the Palestinian Authority (PA) claims as its future Capital. The wall will be 8 metres-high and 650-km-long compared to the 3.6 metres-high, 155-km-long Berlin original. This high-technology-based "Separation Barrier" will be equipped with electrified fencing, sniper towers, two-metre-deep trenches, roads for patrol vehicles, electronic sensors, thermal imaging, video cameras, and unmanned aerial vehicles.

This attempt to alter the conditions on the ground before a settlement of the Palestinian question is negotiated is complemented by other measures, including a law just passed by the Knesset, which forces Palestinians marrying Israelis to live separate lives or quit Israel. It also bars West Bank and Gaza Palestinians who marry Israeli Arabs from obtaining Israeli residence permits.

Yet, people like Brajesh Mishra see in such obnoxiously racist measures "common" virtues such as "pluralism, tolerance and equal opportunity" on which to found a special relationship with Israel. No wonder they fail to understand the role Likud has historically played in opposing Palestinian statehood, justifying illegal settlements on the occupied territories in the name of Biblical-era "Greater Israel", and even opposing the Oslo accords although they were soft on Israel. It also bears repetition that Sharon is as fit a man to be tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity, as is Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet for the butchery and "disappearance" of thousands of innocent people.

As Defence Minister in 1982, Sharon launched an unprovoked war on Lebanon (where the PLO had taken refuge), which killed 17,000 civilians. The excuse was an assassination attempt on Israel's Ambassador in London, although a PLO rival conducted it. In September 1982, Sharon arranged for the Phalangist militia to enter the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps near Beirut, and butcher 2,000-3,000 people. The area was then fully under Israeli control. Even the U.S. Ambassador to Israel was appalled. He told the Israelis: "You must stop the massacres. They are obscene... They are killing children. You are in absolute control of the area and therefore responsible ... "

Sharon was single-handedly responsible for promoting the Second Intifada three years ago through his infamous walk, accompanied by 1,000 Israeli soldiers, to the holy site of Haram al-Sharief in East Jerusalem. He is a brazen proponent of "targeted assassinations" directed at people the Israeli state "knows" to be terrorists - that is without trying them and proving their culpability. In this regard, Sharon's role has been as inflammatory, if not more so, than that of Hamas or Islamic Jehad. Israel has pursued a strategy of escalation of force and used vastly more devastating power than its adversaries.

The Vajpayee government is not only bringing ignominy upon itself, but doing India a horrendous disservice by rolling out the red carpet for Sharon to celebrate its perverse "friendship" with Likudnik Israel. Its orientation violates India's long-standing commitment to Palestinian nationhood and peace in West Asia-North Africa. Such betrayal of India's own agenda of decolonisation will not go down well with our public. Our political parties and civil society organisations must take to the streets to protest Sharon's visit and the government's collusion with U.S. as regards Iraq.

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