Bush Administration's Discovery of India
Sunday, February 26, 2006 01:07:15 amTIMES NEWS NETWORK
March 25, 2005 was not a particularly eventful day newswise in the US or across the world. It was a Good Friday, the birthday of singer Aretha Franklin, the death anniversary of Saudi King Faisal, and the anniversary of the start of the war for liberation of Bangladesh.
The Terry Schiavo case dominated American papers and The New York Times had a story on how the real estate craze was replacing the dotcom bubble. Nothing particularly spectacular on the news scale.
Over at the State Department in Washington DC's Foggy Bottom, beat reporters were asked to tootle up to the briefing room for a background chat with three top Administration mandarins who by protocol could not be named, and who went by the bland appellation of Senior Administration Official (SAO) One, Two, Three. The topic of discussion was South Asia.
Some reporters shrugged; that meant India and Pakistan. Same old, same old. For beat journos fed on a diet of Middle East, Iraq, Russia, Eastern Europe, China etc, it was way down the exciting news list — not unless India and Pakistan were about to go to war or nuke each other.
More recently, Afghanistan and Pakistan came under the War on Terror, but India? After a brief moment in the sun during the Clinton days after the nuclear tests in 1998, the story was conceded to the commerce department and trade reporters — about all those outsourced jobs.
Unbeknownst to reporters though, the year had begun with a series of top-level meetings in the White House between the President and his principals — key cabinet officials including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and others.
On the agenda was a complete makeover of American policy in Asia, ranging from the middle east to far east. The US was getting increasingly isolated and friendless.
It needed a strong ally, an ally with whom it had common interest and values. Over several sessions, the strategy began to take shape.
When the briefing began, SAO One might have known he had a tough job on his hands getting reporters interested in the South Asia story.
"I'm going to explain this a little bit because I want you folks to kind of really have an understanding of it, so forgive me if it seems a little bit educational," he began, "But I think it's important that you really have a feel for the strategy..."
He then intoned about how "the Administration has made a fundamental judgment that the future of this region as a whole is simply vital to the future of the United States.
You've got India, which is the most populous democracy on earth and it's soon to pass China as the most populous country on earth.
You've got Pakistan, which is the second most populous Muslim country in the world and, by the way, the only one with nuclear weapons..." That sounded very much like same old, same old.
It was only when SAO One spoke about Secretary Rice having travelled to India the previous week to present the outline of the new US strategy for Asia did the story acquire some immediacy.
His next words were quite stunning, and seen in hindsight, will probably rank as the weightiest foreign policy statement from the US in the early years of the century.
"Its (the new policy's) goal is to help India become a major world power in the 21st century," he said, adding without being asked to amplify, "We understand fully the implications, including military implications, of that statement."
Those were the 26 words which rearranged — or were designed to change — the matrix of US-India relations.
But such esoteric concepts as redrawing the strategic contours of the world are not easily translatable into flashy news headlines.
It is the stuff of academic journals and foreign policy magazines. However, as the SAO continued his briefing, the "news peg" (in journalistic lingo) appeared: the US was ready to supply F-16s to Pakistan and President Bush had called Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to convey this; India could also have a choice of F-16s or F-18s.
The beat reporters perked up. Oh really? How many to Pakistan? Didn't the Indians object?
Reviewing the transcripts of the briefing almost a year later, it is astonishing to see how much of the questions that followed were about the F-16s. Almost all.
There was hardly a question about the new strategic alignment. In vain did the official try and bring the focus back to the big picture, highlighting the difference between the US approach to India as against Pakistan.
"The strategic dialogue (with India) will include global issues, the kind of issues you would discuss with a world power," he said.
"Look at the National Security Strategy document announced in the fall of 2002. It outlined a vision for strengthened strategic relationships, especially with India and Pakistan, spotlighting the significance of India."
But it was useless. The story of the day was F-16s. Three months later, the workaday media again missed a tectonic shift in US-India sphere.
This time it was Indian defence minister Pranab Mukherjee who came to Washington to meet, among others, his American counterpart Donald Rumsfeld.
They signed an agreement titled 'New Framework for the US-India Defence Relationship', which described a ten-year military alliance between the two countries.
Although it largely read as a statement of intent, the document was hugely ambitious in its size and scope, envisaging a broad range of joint activities, including collaborating in multinational operations "when it is in their common interest" (outside the peacekeeping domain), strengthening the capabilities of the two militaries to promote security and defeat terrorism, and enhancing capabilities to combat the proliferation of WMDs.
Once again, the deal went largely unreported by the US media, by now in the throes of America's Iraq war.
When Mukherjee returned home to India, he was roasted by leftist politicians for agreeing to be an American lapdog, a charge that would start to amplify in the coming months.
It was only when Manmohan Singh came to Washington in July 2005 and signed the nuclear energy agreement with President Bush that implicitly acknowledged India's nuclear power status that the full import of the US-India alliance, still wrapped in the overused term "strategic partnership", began to dawn in both countries. This was no ordinary deal.
An increasingly friendless US had zeroed in on a prospective ally on the other side of the globe — a country with which it had finally recognised it has common ideals, common perceptions, common threats — and to which it could perhaps someday outsource its troubles instead of its jobs. The rest, like the nuclear energy deal, was just a matter of detail.