Trading sanctions for flexibility

Print edition : August 01, 1998

The legislative process in the U.S. to authorise the President to waive the sanctions against India and Pakistan is aimed at giving the Clinton administration elbow-room in its negotiations with the governments of the two countries.

IF there are people in India and Pakistan who believe that the sanctions imposed by the Clinton administration following the recent nuclear tests in the sub-continent are being undone, their assessment is wide of the mark. What has actually happened is that a "process" to authorise the President to waive the sanctions for a limited period and under certain conditions has begun in the Senate and in the House of Representatives. It does not mean the beginning of the end of the sanctions regime. And this process is certain to be a long-winded one, if domestic political realities and perceptions are anything to go by.

The Clinton administration and Congress may now claim that the time has come to review the sanctions against India and Pakistan in the context of the political dialogue that is taking place with the two countries and the trade-offs that will necessarily have to be made if progress is to be achieved in the talks. But beyond the rhetoric that the United States is now disadvantaged because it is "disengaged" from South Asia and beyond the talk of extending humanitarian aid, there is a different reality.

The decision to allow wheat export to Pakistan had less to do with humanitarianism than with domestic economic considerations. The U.S. farm lobby, which was already furious over the decline in the price levels and problems of grain storage, had to be humoured, particularly in a year when congressional elections are due. In fact, lawmakers who are opposed to the dilution of the sanctions law argue that big business has become involved to a great extent in forcing changes in laws. Speaking against sanctions has become the "politically correct" thing to do in Washington D.C. these days.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs Karl F. Inderfurth (left) with Senator Charles Robb (centre) and Senator San Brownback prior to testifying before a Senate Foreign Relations sub-committee hearing on the impact of U.S. sanctions on India and Pakistan following the nuclear tests.-SUSAN WALSH/AP

It is true that the U.S. was genuinely concerned about the possibility of a collapse of Pakistan's economy; all kinds of gloomy scenarios were being forecast. Pakistan's economic collapse, it was maintained in some quarters, would lead to political instability and chaos and might even result in the rise of Islamic hardliners. Given the U.S.' experience with Iran, nobody wanted to see Islamic fundamentalists come to the fore in Pakistan. In addition, there have always been fears that the so-called Islamic Bomb would reach West Asia and directly threaten Israel. Such apprehensions persist despite Islamabad's reiterations that its "indigenous" nuclear weapons technology was not for sale.

However, the reality had a lot more to do with dollars and cents and the Pakistani wheat market. When the sanctions came into force, some $90 million in wheat credits to Pakistan was put on hold; the farm lobby also faced the prospect that another $300 million for the next year would be hopelessly tied up. To the farmers in the Pacific Northwest - which accounts for about 40 per cent of all wheat sales to Pakistan - the idea of Islamabad securing its wheat requirement from elsewhere, notably Canada, France or Australia, was unthinkable. Hence the pressure on the lawmakers to come up with the Farmers Relief Act, which excluded agricultural commodities, including wheat credits, from the sanctions list.

But the Clinton administration could not be seen to be selective in waiving sanctions against Pakistan alone. Of course, India too benefited from the Farmers Relief Act insofar as it could get credits for agricultural commodities, but a larger perspective had to be injected to factor in the political imperatives. The provision for the waiver of sanctions was tied to specific movement in the process of political dialogue with India and Pakistan.

However, the Clinton administration argued against such an approach. For one thing, it did not wish to be tied down to the whims and fancies of lawmakers one more time; for another, it cited the political dynamics in India and Pakistan as a reason against "linkages". The governments in New Delhi and Islamabad cannot be seen (by their respective peoples) to be moving to the U.S.' non-proliferation timetables or agreeing under pressure to its wish list.

The Clinton administration wanted an arrangement under which it would have to "consult" only the appropriate committees of Congress (in the Senate it is the Committee on Foreign Relations, and in the House of Representatives it is the International Relations Committee; further, there are the Committees on Appropriations in both the House and the Senate) considering the matter each time a waiver is sought; this would enable it to get over the hurdle of having to get congressional "approval" each time. In the end, the administration had its way in the Senate and hopes to prevail in the House where the political composition is much more diverse and complex.

The Senate passed the India-Pakistan Relief Act of 1998 (also known as the Brownback Amendment) by a voice vote; the resort to a voice vote was a strategic move by supporters of the bill, who feared that a formal debate and a roll-call vote would lead to a watering down or postponement of the bill by hardliners opposed to waiver. Under the Act, the President would be given broad authority temporarily to lift sanctions against the two countries; he may waive for a period not exceeding one year upon the enactment of the Act the application of any sanction or prohibition under the Arms Control Export Act, the Foreign Assistance Act or the Export Import Bank Act.

The bill, introduced in the House by Democratic Congressman Frank Pallone, provides for similar presidential powers. However, neither the India-Pakistan Relief Act of 1998 (as passed in the Senate) nor the South Asia Sanctions Flexibility Act (as introduced in the House) will permit waivers in respect of defence-related items and dual-use technology. Senator Pat Roberts, a co-sponsor of the India-Pakistan Relief Act of 1998, said that the Act "gives the administration the needed flexibility in dealing with the nuclear problem in South Asia. Most important, it helps American businesses threatened with huge economic losses because of the mandatory sanctions."

THERE are at least three things that need to be kept in mind in respect of the sanctions review "process" that is under way. First, the amendment that the Senate passed will have to match the version that will come out of the House of Representatives. A Conference Committee will have to sort out the language differences; and there may or may not be a formal vote after this.

Secondly, the sanctions amendment in the Senate rides "piggyback" on the Agricultural Appropriations Bill, which has numerous amendments tagged on. This means that any final bill will have to be acceptable to the legislature and the executive.

Thirdly, while those who supported a gradual lifting of the sanctions against India and Pakistan and those who favour giving limited waivers to the President may have been able to push the measure quietly through the Senate, their opponents could be waiting to throw a spanner in the works. Staff aides to Senator John Glenn have said that this will indeed happen. The bottomline in all the above is the length of time that the entire constitutional process will take up.

The administration has made it clear that the President will invoke the authority to waive sanctions only if "significant progress" is made in meeting Washington's non-proliferation objectives. The point is that while the steps taken on the sanctions front may have improved the atmosphere in which the India-U.S. dialogue is being held, the message to New Delhi - and to Islamabad - is also clear. The conditional move to waive sanctions has given the Clinton administration the flexibility to deal with both the short-term and long-term objectives and goals of the U.S.

The State Department has been quick to play down the "unfortunate interpretations" that an end to the sanctions against India and Pakistan is imminent.

AMIDST all the ongoing talk of "flexibility" and the need for forward movement and for meeting its "objectives", the Clinton administration is also quietly reviewing the extent of cooperation with India. And this came out when a controversy arose over the denial of a U.S. visa to Dr. R. Chidambaram, Chairman of India's Atomic Energy Commission (see separate story). It was maintained that the U.S. was in the process of reviewing "across the board" its science and technology engagement with India and Pakistan and that this could have an impact on the scientists of the two countries who are engaged in nuclear and missile development programmes.

In Chidambaram's case, it is being argued that the denial of a visa to visit the U.S. for a scientific conference did not amount to a "refusal", and that it only meant that visa procedures were under review in the aftermath of the nuclear testing by India and Pakistan. The message being conveyed was that scientists who were in any way involved in the nuclear programme would have to pay a price. But at the same time the administration was also quick to point out that the move was not an across-the-board restriction on scientists from either country.

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