Bolton out and India’s standing with the US becomes trickier

Bharat Karnad

[Bolton looks on disapprovingly (?)]

The bureaucratic winner of John Bolton’s ouster as National Security Adviser to President Donald J Trump is Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State. It was well known in Washington that Bolton and Pompeo got along like two favourites with competing charms in the harem angling for the Sultan’s attention, meaning each sought to undermine the other, with the latter having the inside track. Pompeo is oily, always adjusting to Trump’s mood and attitude to issues on the day. Bolton was his gruff — take it or leave it — self, confident that his proven neocon credentials since before the presidency of George W Bush, would not only protect him but permit him to push his own agenda. Wrong presumption.

The fact is that between a disruptor President intent on cutting big legacy deals and an unilateral interventionist sidekick resisting them, the sidekick had to go! Bolton had a long list of interventionist achievements — in the main, pushing the US into “regime changing” policies in Iraq (based on the entirely fictitious notion about Saddam Hussein embarked on a nuclear armaments programme) and to remove the Mullah Omar-led Taliban government in Kabul in the wake of the 9/11 attack on New York, resulting in the near complete disorder in West Asia that persists to this day, and an endless war in Afghanistan against a foe long known for burying foreign interventionist designs. And, he was also the main proponent for an air strike on Iran’s nuclear complex — an attack that was all to set to go in — with Israel active in support, and only awaited a go signal from the White House — which never came. Trump may be a shallow and a callow US President, but his domestic political instincts cannot be faulted.

With 2020 re-election in mind, Trump is serious about extracting America from the 18-year war in Afghanistan, reversing his predecessor Obama’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) riveted together with major West European countries to put off Iran’s going nuclear, and forging a deal, any deal, with Kim Jong-un of North Korea, even at the expense of a treaty ally South Korea, as long as it allows Trump to crow he had brought “peace” to the Korean peninsula. Let’s briefly see what’s at work on these three issues.

Having promised withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan he couldn’t go into the next presidential election cycle with the Taliban gaining ground and getting into a position to redo in Kabul vis a vis the US what the Viet Cong-North Vietnam did in Saigon with the last American troops desperately helicoptering out of Afghanistan and out of trouble, except now it will be the advancing Taliban columns in sight. Such bad optics would defy any “fake news” that Trump and Fox News may concoct, and ignominiously terminate his presidency.

Negotiating a face-saver with Kim would be considered a success. Because Kim has not only stood up to Trump’s threats but countered by upping the ante and repeatedly rubbing America’s face in the mud, demanded that the warmongering Bolton be removed — a message delivered periodically with the firing of missiles to remind Trump he means business, but held out the prospects of a deal that could be personally negotiated with the US president. It has telegraphed to Trump the dangers of another war — this time in the east — that the US would willy-nilly get sucked into, and played on Trump’s confidence in his self-advertised deal-making skills. So far, Kim has had his way in every thing but Trump believes that he could render Kim pliable with offers of a “Marshall Plan” to develop North Korea as another East Asian economic success story. With such a deal in hand on the eve of the elections, he would win it as the maker of enduring peace in Korea, and stabilizer of an “American order” in Northeast Asia.

Iran is a nettlesome problem. Egged on by Bolton and the Israeli PM, Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump almost ordered a catastrophe in the Gulf with the proposed air attack. Had the USAF sorties gone through, Tehran would have been forced into a situation where not to use its huge stock of missiles of various range, even if indiscriminately, against any and all targets in Saudi Arabia, UAE and Israel would be to permanently lose them. Under attack by American forces, Iran’s reasonable “use them or lose them” posture would have ended in much of anything of economic and military value in Iran being reduced to rubble, of course, but the Iranian missiles — developed with much care and diligence with Russian and Chinese assistance, especially by the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guard), would have rained ruin on all the oil and commerce rich sunni Arab kingdoms, sheikhdoms and emirates in the Gulf. It would have plunged the international energy trade into a death spiral, reduced both the leading and sunni and shia countries of the world, and pretty much spelled finis to US influence in the extended region. And because Russia, in order to head off just such a denoument, had warned that it would not remain neutral in the face of such war against Iran, and because with Israel being hit — and depending on the scale and degree of destruction — Tel Aviv could well have unsheathed its nuclear sword. It had the potential of a nuclear Armageddon, something that had been avoided during 50 years of the Cold War-hot peace between the US and the Soviet Union post-World War Two. Even a duffer in the White House would have had such a scenario play out in his mind. It was enough provocation in any case for Trump to call an end to this madness round the corner by getting rid of Bolton. The better path, therefore, was to thinking about jaw-jawing with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, who would be inclined to some sort of compromise that would lift the sanctions off his country’s back.

Imagine three grand “negotiating successes” — with the Taliban in Afghanistan, Kim in North Korea, and Rouhani in Iran, it’d be unprecedented and make him — Trump would reason — irresistible to the voters in next year’s election.

Except Bolton, paradoxically, was good for India. He didn’t care two bits for India, of course, but he did for certain principles of action. In February this year when the Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval betook himself to Washington to curry support for the Balakot strike post-Pulwama terrorist strike, it was Bolton who signaled approval on the basis that India had every right to “self defence”. Such an approval may not be forthcoming the next time India considers forceful action because Bolton’s replacement — whosoever he/she is — will likely mirror Trump’s essential tendency to maximize leverage and not go with any principle. An inkling of what Delhi can expect in the future was available yesterday, the very day when India and Pakistan were squaring up on 370 and Kashmir at the 42nd session of the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Unbidden, Trump again offered himself up as a possible mediator despite the clearest indication by the Modi government that no such external interference was necessary or would be countenanced. The trouble is Trump is aware that Modi is no Mullah Baradar, Kim or Rouhani and that, surrounded by appeasers in his Cabinet, like Jaishankar, he will be inclined, when he is squeezed, to squeal and compromise just to be in America’s good books.

And, re: the UNHCR session: Two things were noticeable. Secretary (East) who put forward India’s case, did not once mention Pakistan’s irrefutable record of ethnic cleansing since Partition when the non-Muslim population in that rumps state was reduced from 15% to less than 1%, this when Islamabad has used the international media megaphone to blast India for abrogating Articles 370 & 35A as prelude to “ethnic cleansing” in Kashmir. Nor did the Secretary harp and iteratively on the state of Gilgit and Baltistan (G&B) where methodical genocide is being committed against the shias of that region by the sunni state by way of straightforward killings and resettling of Mirpuri Mussalmans to change the demographic profile, thereby adding to Pakistan’s disreputable record on human rights.

Indeed, MEA has only recently started to mention G&B when talking about Pakistan-occupied Kashmir — a wrong long pointed out in my writings. Because it neglected for whatever reasons to desist from bringing in the status of, and the deplorable conditions of shias and others demanding freedom in, G&B, the world has been led to believe that the outstanding dispute is only about Indian J&K. This is entirely the Indian government and MEA’s fault.

The other thing was the televised speech, perhaps, in a follow-up session of UNHCR by someone who seemed to be a mid-level functionary in India’s UN Geneva mission. This person read from from the paper in front of him so rapidly, almost as if he feared a guillotine coming down on his neck, to be all but incomprehensible to anyone who was listening. One can argue it didn’t matter because most attendees at these meets are bored to tears and usually manage to sleep with their eyes open! The problem with Indian diplomats in Western settings is their pace and diction when making India’s case. Even in the best of instances, there’s the trademark slightly Indian sing-song lilt when they speak, to which is coupled the haste to make the point. The result usually is the intended audience gets the drift but cannot quite make out what’s said. This has been a longtime problem compounded in recent times by those who have joined the Foreign Service via the UPSC on the basis of regional language competence — a growing proportion of the ‘A’ stream in IFS. May be it is time for the MEA to find funds to set up a language lab for English at the Foreign Service Institute that all entrant level officers would be required to undergo for English language certification. And to think the Indian diplomatic service was, albeit very long ago, known for its drafting prowess.


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