Monday, August 13, 2007

Cozying Up to a Nuclear India

I'm a very opinionated person. Question me on just about any topic, and chances are I'll enthusiastically give you my opinion. I'm self-aware enough to acknowledge that this trait extends to subjects about which I am reasonably well informed (politics), less well informed (economics) and completely ignorant (quantum physics). For this reason, I have been surprising myself of late in my inability, despite a decent amount of reflection, to form a strong opinion regarding the U.S. Government's latest proposed treaty with India.

US relations with India have always been complex. India's steadfast refusal during the Cold War to become overtly entangled in the US-Soviet conflict (and its tendency to lean in Moscow's direction on the occaisions that it did), along with US support for Pakistan, India's refusal to join the global non-proliferation regime, American opposition to the creation of Bangladesh, and New Delhi's perceived intransigence on a myriad of less pressing concerns kept bilateral relations cool for much of the last half-century. On the other hand, India has - with a notably short hiatus during the 1970s - maintained itself as a robust and well-functioning democracy in the post-independence era. For a large, desperately poor, poly-ethnic, poly-lingual, poly-religious post-colonial state, that is no small feat, and in the post-Cold War era it has borne fruit.

With the imperatives of Cold War alliances no longer driving American foreign policy, and ossified socialist ideology no longer guiding Indian economic policy, the stage was set during the 1990s for dramatically improved political and economic ties between the two countries. For a demonstration of how far reconciliation had come, one need look no further than America's slap-on-the-wrist response to Indian nuclear tests in 1998. Given America's erstwhile commitment to strict enforcement (with one notable exception in the Levant) of the non-proliferation regime, the fact that such tests did not evoke a stronger response from Washington indicated that the United States was willing to accept, and even welcome, India's ascent to great power status.

The controversy now surrounding the implementation (or not) of the United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act encompasses many of the basic strategic questions that the United States and India face as they seek to more clearly define their relationship in the 21st Century. The deal presents the United States tempting benefits coupled with some vexing strategic drawbacks.

For those arguing against the treaty, the most significant problem lies not at the deal's periphery, but at its very heart: to bring India into the official nuclear club without insisting that it halt the expansion of its weapons program undermines what little credibility remains in the global non-proliferation regime. The US has already allowed an Israel-sized hole to be carved out of the regime's fabric; to cut a similar space for India would send a message to the (unfortunately growing) number of countries which now covet nuclear weapons that "when it comes to nuclear proliferation, Washington's only real policy is to reward its friends and punish its enemies." I would actually take it further than the Times. The message it sends is that nuclear weapons are fine, as long as your country isn't Muslim. At a time when the US is desperately trying to put international pressure on Iran to give up its nuclear program, trying to head off weapons development in other areas around the Middle East, and trying to implement a tenuous rollback of North Korean nuclear stockpiles, such a message would be dangerous indeed.

Furthermore, a policy that legitimizes Indian nuclear arms would only make the United States more toxic to the public in Pakistan, a country that remains of high strategic importance. Given the critical nature of the Pakistani government support (whoever may be leading that government on a given day), a policy that elevates Pakistan's chief rival into the nuclear club uncontested, while treating Pakistani nuclear stocks with considerably more apprehension seems tailored to anger precisely the wrong people. In some ways, the instability of Musharaff gives the United States some wiggle room in this regard (to whom else can he turn?); but, it also raises the risk that if his government falls - an eventuality that looks more likely with each passing day - the one that replaces it will try to shore up legitimacy by adopting an anti-American posture.

Thus, it is clear that the proposed agreement carries with it considerable risk. In many other ways, though, the treaty makes sense. Even the skeptical Times editorial board acknowledges that "bringing India... in from the cold is not a bad idea." A populous democracy and budding economic powerhouse, India is precisely the kind of ally that the United States needs in the coming decades, particularly in Asia. India's non-Aligned legacy has left it in a diplomatically flexible position that the United States can leverage to constructively manage relationships with authoritarian capitalist powers like Russia and China, and even erstwhile adversaries like Iran. Xenia Dromandy, writing in the Washington Quarterly, notes that India has made it clear that it will not be a US pawn, and that there are some areas in which Indian and American interests will diverge, but that the two countries have broadly similar, and complementary international goals. Neither government is anxious to see Iran go nuclear. Both countries are threatened by global Islamic extremism. Both governments want to manage China's rise as a responsible international stakeholder and limit its disruptive influence. Both countries have considerable economic and political capital invested in globalization (and both must manage domestic backlashes against it). More than anything, both are democracies, and as such are capable of trusting each others' governments given half a reason to do so.

Despite all this, however, a positive Indo-American relationship is not assured. There are many in India who regard the United States as a bullying, imperialist power intent on reducing India to a suboordinate status. India must, of course, deal with its own considerable Muslim population, which by all accounts shares the loathing of Washington that now prevails in the rest of the Islamic world. Even the relatively light restrictions placed on India's nuclear program by this latest deal have generated a storm of protest from BJP nationalists who are incensed by what they view as an affront to Indian soveriegnty. Failing to shepherd this deal to final approval would be an unabashed insult to the vital center in India that seems eager to play a more engaged and constructive role in world affairs. Given the importance of strengthening the US-Indian alliance in the coming years, such an insult would carry grave strategic costs.

In the end, I give cautious support to this agreement's final approval. While I recognize the damage that the deal will do to what remains of the international non-proliferation regime, I have come to the unfortunate conclusion that those who seek to break out of its strictures will not be persuaded one way or another by a US-Indian nuclear agreement (though they may use it as ex-post-facto justification for their own ambitions). Americans should remember that they, along with the other four nuclear signatories to the NPT, have an obligation to continue reducing their own arsenals concurrent with the obligation of the rest of the global community to forgo their own weapons development. If the United States wants to make a gesture to hold up the NPT, it should start by reducing its own stocks. Overall, given the vital role that India must play in any successful 21st Century American strategy, and given the fact that India has proven to be a relatively responsible nuclear player over the past quarter-century, I believe that this deal's benefits outweigh its costs.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Withdrawal from Iraq

Matt over at Foreign Policy Watch has put up an interesting post on the ever-present question of how the United States ought to play out the endgame in Iraq. He points to a recent op-ed by Henry Kissinger on the subject. Herr doktor outlines (in terms that are a bit vague for my taste) the necessity of aggressive regional diplomacy to stem a violent breakup of Iraq and invest all relevant regional players in some type of engineered solution that avoids the total implosion of the Middle East. At the end of his post, Matt asks "What is your favorite exit strategy from Iraq (fantasy or not)? And which celebrity foreign policy hand would endorse it?"

The comment boxes over at FP Watch are small, so I thought I would take up the question here. As I may have previously intimated, some variant of the increasingly popular Biden-Gelb plan for U.S. disengagement makes the most sense from my perspective. Briefly, the plan draws on the experience in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Dayton accords, arguing that Iraq, along the lines of its own Constitution, should be transformed into a very loose federal confederation, in which the day-to-day business of governing (including the provision of security for the Iraqi populace) is devolved to regional power centers, and the central government exists primarily to distribute oil revenues. The argument is premised on the notion that once security and a stable political environment have been established, much of the impetus for ethnic violence, which thrives in chaos, will be diminished. The plan's architects are careful to point out that they are not proposing an outright partition of Iraq along the lines of Palestine or India. Tom Ashbrook, speaking to Senator Biden recently on NPR, rightly pointed out that such stark arrangements have historically not worked out very well. The hope is that the presence of a weak central government to adjudicate disputes will help avoid inter-ethnic warfare and undercut whatever interests regional powers such as Turkey and Iran have in stoking such conflict (or participating in it outright).

This plan has been around in some form for the better part of two years, and has garnered no shortage of legitimate criticism. The first point is that de jure legitimization of ethnic politics will encourage ethnic cleansing in Iraq. While the plan's champions have tried to deemphasize this fear, in my opinion it is well-placed. Senator Biden has been quick to point out that significant ethnic cleansing is already taking place in Iraq, that it is in effect a fait accompli; however, I think he is being overly simplistic. There are still many parts of Iraq, particularly urban Iraq, with mixed ethnic populations (they may have retreated into enclave neighborhoods; however, that will be of little consequence in a city such as Baghdad, which is an island of ethnic diversity surrounded by a Sunni sea). Those populations would likely be encouraged to move (and I use the word "encouraged" in its most euphemistic sense). We should come out and admit, right now, that this strategy will almost certainly lead to significant ethnic cleansing. Frankly, at this point I see no way to avoid this eventuality irrespective of American action. The challenge will be to keep a lid on the worst of the violence, and keep such population movements from metastasizing into a larger war.

A second problem with the plan is the role it calls the central government to play. If the government's primary responsibility is to be oil distribution, mechanisms will have to exist to make sure that it is capable of doing so in an equitable way. As many people have pointed out, most known Iraqi oil exists in the Shia and Kurd-dominated areas of the country. The government will need a base level of functionality and legitimacy to be able to carry out effective and transparent transfers of this wealth around the country. If it is unable to do so, for example if a largely Shia-dominated government denies Iraq's Sunni population its fair share, it could end up accelerating a civil war rather than preventing one. The optimist would hope that the aforementioned separation of the parties would cool ethnic tensions enough to make the government function more smoothly, but this outcome is far from assured.

A final problem with this solution is that a devolution of security responsibilities to what are now ethnic militias could lead to internacine conflict within ethnic groups to see which organization would predominate. An aggressive diplomatic effort to unite these disparate groups behind a single mission and purpose would have to accompany the overarching strategy in order to avert the total collapse of Iraqi society. In this vein, real regional diplomacy to limit the extent to which Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran intervene in Iraqi ethnic politics - diplomacy that would assure all states of their vital interests, guaranteed by a continued robust (albiet somewhat withdrawn) US presence in the region - could presumably pull this off.

As I've made quite clear, this plan is no silver bullet. Its successful implementation will require incredible skill, quite a bit of luck, and may all end in tears regardless. The situation in Iraq is such that the United States is left choosing between abysmal options. Middle East diplomacy, in the short term, has been reduced to the level of damage control. Despite all its difficulties, Biden-Gelb strikes me as the best strategy in this regard.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

American Policy Towards Islamism

...the thoughtful observer of Russian-American relations will find no cause for complaint in the Kremlin's challenge to American society. He will rather experience a certain gratitude to a Providence which, by providing the American people with this implacable challenge, has made their entire security as a nation dependent on their pulling themselves together and accepting the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history plainly intended them to bear.

-George Kennan, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct"

I take momentary pause from my larger foray into grand strategy in response to several interesting pieces I have read in recent weeks, all of which speak, however indirectly, to a reevaluation of American policy towards Islamist movements around the World. An op-ed by Nicholas Thompson advocates a revival in Kennan-esque strategic thinking as it relates to America's conflict with radical Islam. He argues that Kennan's thinking was often misinterpreted as advocating the kind of bellicose, military containment that subsequently prevailed during the Cold War era; in reality Kennan was supposedly advocating a purely political strategy in which the United States used persuasion and superior example to counter Soviet perfidity. I just re-read Kennan's original article, and I am not entirely convinced that his interpretation is correct (I fail to see how Kennan's advice that "Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the western world is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points" does not imply at least some level of military action); but I see what he is driving at. American resources and political capital would be much better applied building schools in Muslim countries than providing high tech weapons to ostensibly friendly Muslim governments.

The second piece I found interesting was posted by Jeb at Foreign Policy Watch, detailing the emergence of a womens' rights movement within political Islam (Jeb struggles, as do the movement's advocates, with the term "feminism," as many of the movements' precepts clash with those of western feminist thought). This is significant because a key concern of many in the West, particularly western liberals, is that Islamist movements are inherently hostile to many of the basic human rights for which liberals have spent centuries fighting and for which they hope one day to gain universal recognition. To be sure, such movements are in their infancy, and I have little confidence that the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood would immediately adopt a progressive Islamic position on such issues the moment they took power; but the fact that such principles of human dignity are gaining political space within the broader Islamist movement demonstrates that Islamist thinking need not be inherently hostile to core progressive human values.

Finally, Shadi Hamid of the Project on Middle East Democracy has argued in several forums (here and here) that the United States needs to recognize that Islamism is the only viable reformist ideology in the Muslim world, and that vainly pushing for liberal reforms that lack popular constituencies while continuing to support corrupt but secular autocrats is a recipie for disaster. He suggests that the United States open dialogue with any Islamist movement that renounces violence and commits itself to political participation through the democratic process (this would include the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the AKP in Turkey, as well as non-violent movements in Morocco and Jordan, but exclude Hamas and Hezbollah, both of which have armed wings). He argues that democratic participation is likely to moderate some of their policy prescriptions that Americans find distasteful, such as curtailment of women's rights and opposition to Israel, while giving the population of the Middle East a constructive outlet for their political frustrations that will undercut support for truly radical and violent groups such as al-Qaeda and Hamas.

Tying this all together, I would argue that American Cold War Policy went most dangerously astray when U.S. leaders failed to look at local Communist and Socialist movements in a nuanced way, seeing agents of Moscow in what were actually nationalist movements that expressed their desire for self-determination and justice in the language of Marx. This logic led America to abandon all of her "moral and political leadership" in places like Vietnam and Iran, with devastating consequences. If the United States is serious about building a democratic Middle East, one with the institutions capable of undercutting the threat to global peace that Radical Islam represents, it will have to realize that not everyone invoking the name of Allah need be counted among its enemies. It will require the courage to abandon the false stability of corrupt autocrats and embrace the uncertainty of moderate Islamism. If that does not prove possible, I fear we shall continue to stumble about in moral, political and strategic darkness.