Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Obama kickstarts India's nuclear deal

Obama kickstarts India's nuclear deal
By MK Bhadrakumar

The relationship between the United States and India, which lately showed signs of stress, was revamped on Monday with the announcement that the two countries have completed the "arrangements and procedures" for US-origin spent nuclear fuel to be reprocessed in India.

A major stumbling block for the "operationalization" of the civil nuclear cooperation agreement signed in 2008 by the US and India has been removed. It took tough negotiations to reach the accord. The US had previously given such reprocessing rights only to the European Atomic Energy Community and Japan. The timing is, unquestionably, political.

An agreement may be ready for signing as early as next month, when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will travel to
Washington to attend the "nuclear summit" hosted by US President Barack Obama on April 12-13. This will give Manmohan's visit added significance.

US's special India ties
Without doubt, Obama is putting his personal stamp on the US-India strategic partnership. The announcement in Washington comes immediately after the US-Pakistan strategic dialogue, where Pakistan made a strong pitch to secure a nuclear deal on par with India's. There the US side said that Pakistan needs to first have a good track record in non-proliferation.

Despite the hype in Islamabad over the strategic dialogue with the US, Delhi believes the Pakistanis got much less than what they had demanded and probably expected. The Pakistanis handed Washington an imposing 56-page dossier prepared under army chief General Pervez Kiani's personal supervision that was a long wish list of all the things that Islamabad expected Washington to provide it with.

Instead, the news regarding the nuclear reprocessing agreement with the US reaffirms India's special status in the US's regional policies.

In the short term, the India-US nuclear deal may mitigate some of the bitterness felt in India over Washington being less than forthcoming in providing the Indian intelligence services with access to interrogate David Coleman Headley, a key suspect in the terrorist strike in Mumbai in November 2008 and who is standing trial in the US. (See A spy unsettles US-India ties, Asia Times Online, March 22)

In the long term, the new agreement on reprocessing "will facilitate participation by US firms in India's rapidly expanding civil nuclear energy sector". Indeed, the commercial spin-off is going to be massive for the US nuclear industry, running into tens of billions of dollars.

The powerful business lobby in the US is, from Delhi's perspective, serving a useful purpose, especially when the US economy is desperately keen to secure export orders. The Indian establishment calculates that its trump card ultimately lies in the business opportunities that the rapidly growing Indian market can offer to the US business and industry, believing this could make Delhi into Washington's long-term partner in the region. The bi-partisan support in the US Congress for a strong relationship with India acknowledges this ground reality.

A sense of frustration was building up in Delhi that Obama might be reverting to "hyphenating" US's ties with India and Pakistan rather than separately developing each relationship on intrinsic merits, which was a fine legacy of the former president George W Bush-era.

The new agreement may ease the Indian angst for a coming stormy period of the next two to three years. At least for now, AfPak remains Obama's number one priority and Pakistan's role in it will remain central.

Besides, the new agreement only provides for India to reprocess US-origin spent fuel. It does not envisage transfer of US technology as such, whereas Delhi's persistent demand has been that the US's remaining restrictions on transfer of dual-use technology for India are anachronistic.

India's course correction
All the same, the political symbolism of the new agreement cannot be lost on the international community.

The recent signing of multi-billion dollar arms deals in the defense and nuclear fields between India and Russia on the sidelines of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's visit to India would have driven home to the Obama administration that Delhi was reviving its strategic ties with Moscow with a long-term perspective.

Second, Obama is working hard to strengthen the nuclear non-proliferation regime and in essence, he just underscored the US's acceptance of India's special status in any revamped nuclear non-proliferation architecture.

Third, the US is affirming its differentiated regard for India at a time when Sino-American ties are showing signs of strain. The US probably feels the need to galvanize its overall relationship with India as part of its Asian strategy. Interestingly, even as the US-Pakistan strategic dialogue was under way in the State Department in Washington, Capitol Hill was conducting a hearing where India figured.

Testifying before the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, the commander-in-chief of the Hawaii-based Pacific Command, Admiral Robert F Willard, said, "Our nation's partnership with India is especially important to long-term South and Central Asia regional security and to US national interests in this vital sub-region."

He said India's leadership as the largest democracy in the world, its rising economic power and its influence across South Asia as well as its global influence attested to its pivotal role in shaping the regional security environment.

It cannot be lost on the Obama administration that Delhi is quietly rethinking its overall foreign policy orientation. Delhi deliberately harmonized its policies with the US's strategies and even put at risk its traditional ties of friendship with Tehran in deference to the US's containment policy toward Iran. There is a feeling in Delhi, on the other hand, that the US placed undue primacy on the AfPak cooperation with the Pakistani military.

Paradoxically, India is one of a handful of countries that has faith in Obama's AfPak strategy. Delhi wants the US surge to succeed. It sees no conflict of interests if the US military presence continues for the foreseeable future. Delhi is prepared to commit resources to be an optimal participant in the US's AfPak strategy.

No doubt, Delhi staunchly opposes the forces of extremism in Afghanistan. Most important, Delhi has steered clear of any regional initiatives that remotely smack of challenging the AfPak strategy. Yet, Delhi is intrigued that AfPak diplomacy under special representative Richard Holbrooke trampled on Indian sensitivities by its crass failure to distinguish the US's friends.

The AfPak diplomats do not seem to get the point that Delhi will do whatever it takes to safeguard its interests in a tough neighborhood and it has no choices in the matter.

Obama's realism
Under Obama's leadership, the US-India strategic partnership may already have lost its innocence. There is bound to be greater maturity on the Indian side in assessing the volatility of the international system, the growing trends of polycentrism, the rise of China and the need for India to avoid regional isolation. How this pans out will be engrossing to watch.

India faces multiple challenges - it must keep tensions under check in relations with Pakistan, sustain the momentum in Sino-Indian understanding, work for a stable and secure Afghanistan, repair the ties with Iran, encourage the transition processes in Nepal and Sri Lanka, and, generally speaking, work on a neighborhood policy that provides underpinning for India's impressive annual growth rate coasting toward 9%, so that it becomes sustainable through the next decade or two.

Obama's signal contribution to the US-India strategic partnership is that he may be imparting a balance, a sense of proportion to it. It is up to Delhi to seize the window of opportunity. Obama is not the sort of man to browbeat India or lay down rules of conduct. Nor is his passion for India in any way to be doubted.

Surely, any of the Bush-era rhetoric that the US and India would work shoulder to shoulder as two great democracies in a brave new world or that the Indian people "loved" Bush for endeavoring to make their country a "great power" will embarrass the policy makers today - both in Delhi and in Washington.

In sum, implementation of the nuclear deal becomes a turning point in the US-India partnership. With one stroke, Obama may have calmed the troubled waters of US-India partnership. It is a masterstroke in its timing.

The present Indian government faces no worthwhile opposition domestically to the advancement of its agenda of expanding and deepening the US-India strategic partnership. The majority opinion among the Indian elites also favors strong US-India ties. Most certainly, a tumultuous reception awaits Obama when he visits India.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

Iraq squeezed between US and Iran

Iraq squeezed between US and Iran
By Pepe Escobar

More than seven years after the United States invasion vowed to bring "democracy" to Iraq, the neo-conservative who inspired the project may at least relish the guilty pleasure of watching sectarianism win this month's elections - and seeing former prime minister and Central Intelligence Agency asset Iyad Allawi and current Iran-aligned Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki losing out.

Technically, Allawi's Iraqi List (Iraqiya) coalition won 91 delegates to the next National Assembly, compared with the 89 of Maliki's State of Law list. The Sadrists got 38 seats among the 70 garnered by the Iraqi National Alliance (INA) bloc. The Kurdistan Alliance got 43 seats. Smaller parties won 33 seats. The great
loser was the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), part of INA. Sectarianism prevails.

One thing is already virtually certain: Allawi will battle to become the next prime minister. So, in all probability, will Maliki himself. Let's see why.

Allawi's coalition is a motley crew of former Ba'athists (such as Allawi), secular Sunnis and Shi'ites, nationalists, anyone who is against Iranian interference, plus a collection of provincial parties. Allawi was heavily supported by all Sunni states in the Gulf - especially Saudi Arabia. He secured a surprising number of votes from Sunnis in northern and western Iraq. In Baghdad, he received not only the remaining Sunni votes (the city is now overwhelmingly Shi'ite) but also a lot of secular Shi'ite votes.

In Maliki's State of Law coalition, the predominant power is his Islamic Da'wa party. Before the election, Maliki got into bed with INA and organized what for all practical purposes was a purge of the vast security and intelligence apparatus (which are de facto financed by US taxpayers).

The INA itself was put together in Tehran in the summer of 2009 as the late Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of ISCI, lay dying. His son, Ammar al-Hakim, is now the head of ISCI. The key truce between Muqtada al-Sadr and al-Hakim was organized by none other than the speaker of the majlis (Iranian parliament), Ali Larijani, who is an Iraqi born in Najaf, as well as the commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Now Tehran is pulling no punches. Late last week, a meeting in Tehran united Maliki's people, Sadrists, President Jalal Talabani (a Kurd), and Vice President Adil Abdel Mahdi of ISCI. Target: find the way to set up a non-Allawi-led coalition. In fact, the only feasible way out for Iraq is a government of national unity that would include Maliki's people, Allawi's people and the Sadrists. Easier said than done - as the Sadrists still despise Maliki; he unleashed the Iraqi army against the Mahdi Army in Basra and Baghdad in the summer of 2008.

Militias on the lookout

For all the talk of "democracy", Iraq remains militia heaven. Everybody has a militia - from the Kurds to the Sadrists' Mahdi Army, not to mention the notorious Badr Brigade of the ISCI. The former Sunni Iraqi resistance - from Ansar al-Islam to the 1920 Revolution Brigades - appears to have disarmed, but in fact it is laying low. The Sahwa ("Awakening") movement - which US corporate media spun as "heroes" in the fight against al-Qaeda - is a mess. Al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers, part of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), as well as assorted fringe jihadi groups may be sleeping, but not for long.

Any chance of Allawi getting into power would involve an extremely improbable deal with the Kurds - who are vociferous enemies of Allawi's Arab nationalist allies, especially in disputed Mosul. Allawi would also need the support of all smaller parties. Allawi cannot attract the Sadrists; first of all because they are fierce anti-Ba'athists, and second because they have entered a de facto alliance with Iran since 2007. Muqtada has been living and studying in Qom. The Sadrists' key appeal to Sunni and Shi'ite Iraqis alike is the demand for the immediate withdrawal of all US troops.

Seven years ago, the annihilation of Saddam's already crippled military machine may have terminated one of those perennial "existential threats" to Israel. As for looting Iraq's fabulous oil reserves, that will be a more complex proposition as Chinese and Russian oil majors are now back in the game (see Iraq oil auction hits the jackpot Asia Times Online, December 16, 2009). Withdrawal or no withdrawal, Washington must remain in Iraq in some muscular way to try to profit from the energy bonanza. Thus the necessity of a huge mega-protected fortress (budget for 2010: US$675 million) disguised as the American Embassy, crammed with more than 10,000 intelligence operatives.

So the stage is set for major fireworks to erupt. Washington's game is to do everything to back Allawi. Tehran's game is to support Maliki, the Sadrists and ISCI inside the INA, and the Kurds against Allawi. In one more piercing irony permeating the whole Iraqi tragedy, if "Saddam lite" Allawi ends up getting nothing, one can bet a basket of explosives that the Sunnis will go literally ballistic.

Sectarianism, not "democracy", rules.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Karzai's China-Iran dalliance riles Obama

Karzai's China-Iran dalliance riles Obama
By M K Bhadrakumar

Great moments in diplomatic timing are hard to distinguish when the practitioners are inscrutable entities. Afghan President Hamid Karzai's visits to China and Iran within the week rang alarm bells in Washington which were heard in the Oval Office of the White House.

Karzai's two days of talks in Beijing last week were scheduled exactly at the same time as the high-profile strategic dialogue taking place between the United States and Pakistan in Washington.

Karzai has coolly defied the President Barack Obama's do-or-die diplomatic campaign to "isolate" Iran in the region - not once but twice during the past fortnight. Karzai earlier received his Iranian
counterpart, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, with manifest warmth in Kabul while the US Defense Secretary Robert Gates was on a visit to Afghanistan.

Washington lost no time signaling its displeasure. Obama flew into Kabul on Sunday unannounced for an "on the ground update" from Karzai.

US national security advisor James Jones told the White House press party that Obama hoped to help Karzai understand that "in this second term there are things he has to do as the president of his country to battle the things that have not been paid attention to almost since day one".

Jones's unusually sharp comment bears out the New York Times report from Kabul that Obama "personally delivered pointed criticism" to the Afghan president that "reflected growing vexation" with him.

The newspaper commented:
Mr Obama's visit to Afghanistan came against a backdrop of tension between Mr Karzai and the Americans. It quoted a European diplomat in Kabul as saying, "He's [Karzai] slipping away from the West" and it went on to point out that the Afghan president "warmly received one of America's most vocal adversaries" in Kabul and then "met with him again this past weekend in Tehran", apart from visiting China, "a country that is making economic investments in Afghanistan, ... taking advantage of the hard-won and expensive security efforts of the US and other Western nations."
It seems Karzai had barely got back to Kabul from Tehran when the US Air Force One carrying Obama landed in Bagram air base north of the Afghan capital. Obama has since asked Karzai to go over to Washington on May 12.

Spring is in the air Clearly, the Americans are furious that Karzai is steadily disengaging from the US's grip and seeking friendship with China and Iran. Pretences of cordiality are withering away even as Washington realizes that the ground beneath its feet is shifting.

Curiously, two days after his return to Kabul from Beijing on Thursday, Karzai flew to Tehran to celebrate Nowruz festival. By celebrating the advent of spring at an extraordinary conclave of Persian-speaking regional countries in Tehran, Karzai drew attention to Afghanistan's multiple identity as a plural society of pre-Islamic antiquity.

But in political terms, he ostentatiously displayed his freedom from American control. His itinerary in Tehran included a meeting with Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

If Karzai's Iran diplomacy was rich in political symbolism, his state visit to China was politically substantive. Karzai was accompanied by the Afghan ministers of foreign affairs and defense. China's Xinhua news agency reported from Beijing that Karzai's upcoming visit "has drawn wide attention at a time when major powers are speculating whether China would engage deeper in efforts to rebuild - and possibly offer military assistance to - the war-torn country."

Xinhua scotched speculation regarding any role for China in the war:
Since early 2008, Afghan officials, as well as the NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] troops, have repeatedly asked China to open the border on the east end of the Vakhan corridor to help them fight terrorists in the country. China has rejected the appeal, refusing to be sucked into a war on terror. ... Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said earlier this month that military means would not offer a fundamental solution to the Afghan issue.
Zhang Xiaodong, deputy head of the Chinese Association for Middle East Studies, was quoted as saying, "China definitely will not participate in the country's internal affairs under the NATO framework".

Zhang challenged the call last month by NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen to reinforce the alliance's ties with Asian countries such as China, India and Pakistan as well as Russia, which would have a stake in Afghanistan's stability. Zhang said "unbalanced engagement by these [Asian] stakeholders" could lead only to more problems.

Zhang added: "Afghanistan should cut its reliance on the US. At the moment, Washington is deeply involved, and it makes other neighbors nervous. Karzai now hopes to seek more support from other big countries and find a diplomatic balance."

However, in a meeting with his Afghan counterpart, Abdul Rahim Wardak, Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie pledged bilateral military cooperation. "Chinese military will continue assistance to the Afghan National Army to improve their capacity for safeguarding national sovereignty, territorial integrity and domestic stability," Liang said. He pointed out that the military cooperation is proceeding smoothly in the direction of military supply and personnel training and the Chinese assistance is "unconditional".

China Daily lambasts AfPak
On Wednesday, ahead of Karzai's meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao, the government-owned China Daily featured a devastating critique of the US's AfPak policy in an article titled "Afghanistan reflects US' self-obsession".
The commentary said:
It is clear that the US would like to maintain its influence over Afghanistan even after withdrawing its troops, no matter when that happens. Which means it would not allow regional powers such as China to play a greater role in Afghan affairs. Instead, what the US is willing to share with countries like China is the burden of economic reconstruction.
The commentary harped on differences in the "basic stances" of China and the US. First, the US has adopted a differentiated approach toward terrorism insofar as its focus is on preventing Taliban or al-Qaeda from threatening its homeland security or US's facilities and personnel. On the contrary, "China, as Afghanistan's neighbor, also needs to tackle non-traditional security threats such as drug trafficking, arms smuggling and other cross-border crimes," China Daily said.

Second, the US's "consolidation" of its military presence in Central and South Asia" on the pretext of the Afghan war "put extra pressure on China's defense and security interests".

Third, the US and Chinese economic interests clash. "America gets priority in project selection ... And its economic input is aimed at paying for its military operations," while Chinese enterprises face unfair competition in securing contracts and are vulnerable to security threats.

Fourth, the US is prescriptive and has been "trying to force its political model on the backward country. On the other hand, China believes the Afghans (of all ethic groups and political parties) should decide on what form of government they want based on their culture, tradition and domestic conditions."

Fifth, China Daily said the US and China are pursuing contradictory "geopolitical objectives". The US has an "offensive counterterrorism strategy in which Afghanistan is being used as a pawn to help it maintain its global dominance and contain its competitors. China, on the contrary, pursues a defensive national defense policy and wants to have good relations as neighbors of Afghanistan."

Looking ahead, the commentary said:
The chaos caused by the war in Afghanistan is threatening security in China's northwestern region. A weak government in Kabul could mean a poorly manned border, which in turn would facilitate drug trafficking and arms smuggling and allow "East Turkmenistan" separatists to seek shelter in Afghanistan after causing trouble in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

China should get more countries to come together to resolve the Afghan problem. ... The SCO [Shanghai Cooperation Organization] could play a more active role because five of Afghanistan's six neighbors are its members or observers. ... But given the present situation in Afghanistan, an SCO-led reconciliation and reconstruction process is an unrealistic proposition. Hence at present it [China] could only provide help through multilateral channels.
A show of support for Karzai
On the eve of Karzai's departure for Beijing, he received a delegation from the opposition Hizb-i-Islami group headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Washington is ambivalent about Hekmatyar, but in the joint statement issued after Karzai's visit, Beijing expressed support for the reconciliation and reintegration process in Afghanistan and affirmed "respect for the Afghan people's choice of development road suited to their national conditions".

Ahmadinejad's consultations in Kabul, followed by Karzai's dash to Islamabad, and now his visits to Beijing and Tehran - the sudden spurt of high level exchanges suggest a pattern.

What should alarm Washington most is that the Chinese position on Afghan national reconciliation meshes with Karzai's political agenda and accords with Iran's overlapping concerns and interests.

The China-Afghan joint statement affirms Beijing's readiness to expand economic cooperation, trade and investment while upholding the principle of "respect for the Afghan people's choice of development road suited to their national conditions".

Washington will factor in that it is quite within China's financial capacity to reduce Karzai's dependence on Western largesse, in turn encouraging the Afghan leader to shake off the West's attempts to dominate him.

The US-government funded media speculated that during his stay in Beijing, Karzai might seek Chinese investment in Afghanistan's vast reserves of minerals such as the rich gas fields in the northwestern region bordering Turkmenistan, which is already connected by a pipeline to Xinjiang.

It cannot be lost on Washington that Beijing and Tehran share similar concerns on almost all core areas of the Afghan situation.

These include their perspectives regarding the US's "hidden agenda" in the Afghan war and therefore the urgency of stabilizing the Afghan situation, Washington's double standards in the fight against terrorism, the West's hegemonistic approach toward Afghanistan, the imperative need of "Afghanization" including an Afghan-led national reconciliation, and most important, the desirability of cooperation among like-minded countries in the region in the search for an Afghan settlement.

Conceivably, Beijing's worries over the critical security situation in Afghanistan and its commonality of interests with Tehran could well act as an additional factor hardening Beijing's stance apropos the Iran nuclear issue.

Equally, does the prospect of long-term strategic ties between the US and Pakistan worry China?

A senior advisor to the former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif wrote recently, "Strategic relations with the US may well impinge on other vital linkages. Two are critical. With the US determined to engineer a 'regime change' in Iran, what would its expectations be from Pakistan? Finally, can we [Islamabad] contemplate cooperating with the US in any initiative that could trouble our relations with China?"

For the present, the Chinese commentaries seem to take a detached view. They tend to view the US-Pakistan long-term strategic partnership project as a pragmatic move on both sides - borne out of Washington's need to solicit Pakistani help to stabilize Afghanistan on the one hand and on the other hand Islamabad's need of US help to resuscitate its economy and to maintain a strategic balance vis-a-vis India.

But Beijing cannot be oblivious of the underlying US regional strategy to frustrate China's efforts to gain access routes to the Persian Gulf region via Central Asia bypassing the Malacca Strait, which is effectively under American control. The US strategy cannot work unless Pakistan falls in line.

Beijing's (and Tehran's) show of support for Karzai comes at a time when his relations with the US and Pakistan are somewhat rocky, to say the least.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Brazil: we’ve got the power


Lula Da Silva’s resources and ambition

Brazil wants to broker international diplomacy, host presidential missions and ignore the US. It now has serious economic sway in South America, and it is aiming for much more and much wider influence

by Lamia Oualalou

“It is embarrassing that Brazil is receiving the head of a repressive dictatorial regime. It is one thing to have diplomatic relations with dictatorships; it is quite another to welcome their leaders to Brazil” (1), wrote José Serra, the governor of São Paulo state and one of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s main political opponents. He was commenting on the visit of Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on 23 November 2009. Serra is rarely so vehement in his attacks on “Lula”, who enjoys an impressive level of popularity.

Apart from social programmes, foreign policy is the area in which Lula, the leader of the Workers’ Party has made the greatest changes. Lula may have abandoned part of his economic agenda under pressure from the financial sector (although he has partially revived it during his second term) but he has parted ways with the political elite, which had aligned itself with the United States in the struggle against communism.

This change of direction should not be mistaken for a clear ideological position on Lula’s part, even if his two principal collaborators, Celso Amorim, the minister of foreign affairs, and Marco Aurélio García, the president’s special foreign policy adviser, have unequivocally declared themselves to be leftwing. At the most, it indicates robust economical pragmatism, a preference for popular governments, a conviction that Brazil has a historic debt to Africa (because of the role of slavery in its past) and a belief that the country needs to lose its inferiority complex.

At his investiture in January 2003, Lula reserved his warmest welcome for Cuba’s president, Fidel Castro. He then appeared to establish a frank and open relationship with the US president, George W Bush, to the despair of Workers’ Party militants. The Brazilian president is, first and foremost, a trade unionist who firmly believes it is important to talk to everyone and that a sound agreement requires that both parties be satisfied, even when that agreement comes at the end of a long struggle. And that, as in the 1970s, there is really no reason why he should not enjoy a whisky with the boss between bouts of industrial action.

For the outside world, it all began in September 2003 when Brazil upset the routine of the World Trade Organisation summit in Cancún by leading a revolt of 20 emerging economies (the G20). For the first time, these insisted that the rich nations (the G8) give them something in return for opening up their markets. “When someone wants to buy something, Brazil should be on hand to sell it to them,” said Lula.

The Elizabeth Arden circuit

Since the beginning of his first term, Lula has spent 399 days on overseas visits (2), usually accompanied by a large number of business people. His itinerary has taken in Latin America (his number one priority) and the larger emerging economies (including South Africa, India, China and Russia) but also areas of the world traditionally scorned by the economic elite, such as Central America, Africa and the Middle East. In May 2005 Brazil hosted the first ever Latin American-Arab summit from which the US was excluded (it had wanted to attend as an observer). And in 2006, Brazil attended the Africa-Latin America summit at Abuja, in Nigeria.

At first, Brazil’s foreign ministry was at a loss. Politically conservative and mostly from privileged backgrounds, its diplomats preferred the glamour of what is referred to in Brazil as “the Elizabeth Arden circuit”: Rome, Paris, London, Washington. But Brazil’s business leaders were delighted: the policy has brought growth for its multinationals. The state controlled oil company Petrobras, mining giant Vale, civil engineering groups Odebrecht and Camargo Corrêa, beef giant JBS-Friboi, chicken giant BRF, aircraft manufacturer Embraer and the private bank Itaú, as well as hundreds of ethanol and soy bean producers, have all seen their exports and foreign investments explode. The discovery of substantial oil deposits off the Brazilian coast has made the country even more export-orientated. China has loaned $10bn to Petrobras in a bid to guarantee its future access to Brazilian oil. This year China has for the first time supplanted the US as Brazil’s largest export market.

In Latin America politics and business go hand in hand. Brazil has been the first to benefit from the explosion of demand in neighbouring Venezuela. Venezuela’s poorest citizens are becoming consumers (of meat, milk, small electrical appliances) but it lacks any real agriculture or industry and has had to rely on imports from Colombia, then, as relations with Bogotá have deteriorated, from Brazil. In Argentina, the Brazilian beverage company AmBev is keeping quiet about its takeover of the Argentine brewery Quilmes. Argentina’s largest meat producers have all been taken over by Brazilian companies and the situation is similar in Uruguay, where most rice production is under Brazilian control. In Bolivia, Brazilian firms control more than one-fifth of the economy, in the form of soybeans and natural gas. In Paraguay, the fertile farmlands of the departments of Alto Paraná, San Pedro, Concepción, Amambay and Canindeyú are planted with Brazilian soybeans.

Everywhere Brazilian enterprises go they are accompanied by loans from the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) (3). Matias Spektor, assistant professor in international relations at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in Rio de Janeiro, says that Brazil’s trade policy is not merely about making the nation wealthier, but also about making it more powerful.

This has created tensions. Brazil is used to presenting itself as a “gentle giant” but is now being accused of imperialism – by Argentina, which complains it is being flooded with industrial products; by Ecuador, which has accused Odebrecht of shoddy workmanship; and by Bolivia, where the big Brazilian landowners in the east of the country make no secret of their alliance with political parties opposing the government of Evo Morales. Anxious to reconcile business interests with good neighbourliness, Lula has frequently had to intervene. In most cases, he has invoked regional integration, forbidding his government from taking the kind of retaliatory action the press has been demanding.

Since the demise of the Free Trade Area of the Americas, one of Washington’s pet projects, Latin American integration has become a pillar of Brazilian policy. Lula repeats that Brazil has every interest in ensuring that its neighbours are robust and are not impoverished or weakened by social and political crises. He demonstrated his commitment to this position in May 2006 by calling Evo Morales’ decision to nationalise Bolivia’s gas fields (which were being exploited by Petrobras) “sovereign”, while some were demanding that Brazilian troops be sent in as a response to “the stupidity of the Bolivian government” (4).

Last July Brazil also ended a long-running dispute with Paraguay, its other fragile neighbour, by agreeing to revise the terms (very unfavourable to Paraguay) of their agreement on the exploitation of Itaipú, the gigantic bi-national hydroelectric power station on the border between the two countries. This gesture proved vital to the stability of the government of Fernando Lugo, who was able to claim a victory over his powerful neighbour.

Public embrace

Lugo and Morales irritate both the Brazilian elite and Washington, but not as much as Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez, with whom Lula has established a solid alliance. The two have refused to let themselves become embroiled in the rhetoric of the “two left wings” – the modern and responsible left, which is anxious to maintain financial stability, led by Brazil and including Chile and Uruguay; and the radical, populist, anti-American left, led by Venezuela and Cuba and including Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua. When the press play on the differences between their countries, Lula and Chávez are quick to organise a meeting for the inauguration of a bridge or the laying of the foundation stone of a factory, a pretext to be seen embracing on camera. When Chávez was accused of authoritarianism, Brazil responded by backing Venezuela’s application to join Mercosur (the Southern Common Market).

The alliance between the two countries is the keystone of the major Latin American institutions established in the past few years. The most important of these is Unasur (Union of South American Nations), established at Brasília in May 2008, which includes 12 South American countries and aims to replace the Organisation of American States – which has its seat in Washington DC, a sign of its dependence on the White House. Unasur has a defence council and although the organisation is as yet fragile, it managed to ease tensions between Ecuador and Columbia (5). And in September 2008 it blocked an attempt to destabilise the Bolivian government (orchestrated by opposition parties) by reaffirming the legitimacy of the Morales administration. In both cases, it managed without intervention by the US.

Brazil also used Unasur to oppose the establishment of seven US military bases in Columbia. Brazil feels that any conflicts in the region should be settled without outside intervention. For the same reason, Lula denounced the reactivation in 2008 of the US Fourth Fleet, whose mission is to patrol South American and Caribbean waters.

But it is over Honduras that Brazil and the US are most clearly at odds. Immediately after the coup of 28 June 2009, Unasur insisted that President Manuel Zelaya should be reinstated and allowed to complete his term of office. On 21 September, with the deposed head of state ensconced in the Brazilian embassy, Lula found himself in the front line again. Foreign minister García was furious: “Brazil has used all the sanctions and pressures it can bring to bear, but that isn’t much compared with what the US could have done. If we’d had the kind of instruments they have at their disposal, we would have used them.”

The irritation increased in November, when President Obama wrote to his Brazilian counterpart to explain his decision to recognise the elections organised by the putschist government on 29 November and his positions on the WTO negotiations and the Copenhagen summit, which Brazil had openly criticised. Sent on the eve of Ahmadinejad’s visit to Brazil, this letter also reminded the Brazilian president of Iran’s violations of human rights and the dangers inherent in its nuclear programme.

Part of the club

Lula is irritated by what he calls the hypocrisy of the nuclear-armed nations. Last December he said that to have the moral authority to demand that others should not have the bomb, they would have to give it up themselves. He also pointed out that Brazil’s constitution explicitly prohibits the development of nuclear weapons. Sources close to the president feel it is important that Iran be allowed to develop civil nuclear technology: from Brazil’s viewpoint a ban would be a dangerous precedent.

Lula is obsessed with making his country a permanent member of the UN Security Council, just as he is with reforming the International Monetary Fund. (The larger emerging economies make a substantial contribution to the IMF but enjoy only a small percentage of voting rights.) In 2004 this obsession prompted Lula to agree that Brazil should lead the military side of the UN peace mission to Haiti after the expulsion of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, so gaining admission to the club of “grown-up” nations.

The UN has been pressing Lula to send more troops on other UN peace missions. But without a reform of the institution that would really allow them to make their voice heard, Brazil’s military are refusing to get involved in missions such as those to Darfur or the Congo, over which they have no control.

Lula’s latest venture is participation in the Middle East peace talks. In November 2009, he received not only Ahmedinejad, but also Israel’s president Shimon Peres and the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. Thomas Trebat, executive director of the Institute of Latin American Studies at Columbia University, says: “By not being too closely aligned with the United States, [Brazil] can still be seen as an honest broker.” Once again Lula, the seducer, hopes that his skills as a negotiator will open up new opportunities for Brazil to become a world power.

Lamia Oualalou is a journalist based in Rio de Janeiro

(1) José Serra, “Visita indesejável”, Folha de São Paulo, 23 November 2009.

(2) “Como o Brasil é visto lá fora”, Zero Hora, November 2009.

(3) A bank linked to the ministry of development, industry and foreign trade.

(4) Two Brazilian papers, Estado de São Paulo and Veja, in May 2006 carried cartoons showing Lula with a bootprint on the seat of his trousers.

(5) In March 2008 Colombia infringed Ecuador’s sovereignty by attacking a guerrilla camp on Ecuadorian soil.

Friday, March 26, 2010

India’s Waning Regional Influence: Bad policy Making or Lack of Political Will?


In recent weeks, lot of things were happening in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theatre which are critical to the evolution of India’s regional role and its foreign policy. On 26 February 2010, at least nine Indians, including three army officers were killed in a terrorist attack in Kabul. The attack was carried out focussing the residential areas used by Indians working in Afghanistan. The Indian National Security Advisor, Mr. Shiv Shankar Menon made a two day visit to Kabul on 5 March 2010 to review the security situation of the Indians working there. Following his visit, Pakistani Army Chief General Pervez Kiani met the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai in Kabul, on 6 March 2010, to discuss “matters of mutual interest”. On 7 March 2010, the US Defense Secretary Robert Gates carried out an urgent visit to Kabul. This was in view of the scheduled visit of the President of Iran, Mahmud Ahmadinejad on 10 March 2010. The Iranian president’s visit was aimed at showing strong their support for President Karzai and to secure Afghan support. This was followed by a two day visit by President Karzai to Pakistan on 10 March 2010. During this visit, Karzai held talks with his Pakistani counterpart, President Asif Ali Zardari and also had a separate meeting with Pakistani Army Chief, General Kiani.

Loosing Karzai and Afghanistan:

Indian government officials and strategic thinkers till now took Indian influence in Afghanistan for granted. They dealt with Afghanistan as an Indian outpost, using it to monitor Pakistan and to secure India’s national interests. Following the London conference on Afghanistan in February 2010, while the international community accepted the idea of involving moderate Taliban in the political settlement, India vehemently opposed it. India always remained cynical about involving Taliban in the Afghan national reconciliation process. India’s opposition is based on the ground that there is no difference between a good and bad Taliban. The geopolitical reason behind this Indian opposition is that, if Taliban is involved in this process, then it will become inevitable that, Pakistan will play a major role in the formation of any future afghan government.

President Karzai is going ahead with the reconciliation program. In view of that, he is planning to hold a “loya jirgha” or “grand council” on 29 April 2010. President Karzai’s recent visit to Pakistan should be looked at from this angle. Karzai needs Pakistan’s support to be successful in his reconciliation plan. During his visit to Pakistan, President Karzai said, “India is a close friend of Afghanistan but Pakistan is a brother of Afghanistan. Pakistan is a twin brother. We are conjoined twins, there's no separation.” He also stressed Afghanistan's neutrality by saying, “Afghanistan does not want any proxy wars on its territory. It does not want a proxy war between India and Pakistan. It does not want a proxy war between Iran and the U.S. on Afghanistan.” In addition, during his talks with Gen. Kiani, the Pakistani army chief offered him to train the Afghan army. To this Karzai said, “as far as the training of Afghan soldiers, my minister of defence will study and we will come back on this”. All these developments are not fitting well with the plans envisioned by the Indian strategic thinkers. India has no one else to blame for this predicament other than itself. India lost its influence over Karzai following its miscalculated backing of the opposition candidate, Abdullah Abdullah, fielded by the US and also having failed to support Karzai in the recent months. It is evident that in the coming weeks, President Karzai will be working closely with Pakistan to ensure that the “Loya Jirgha” ends successfully.

India’s Distancing its relations with Iran:

Iran was one of India’s long standing allies in the region over decades. However, during its flirtation period with the Bush administration, the Congress led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government (2004-2009) in Delhi forfeited this special relationship. In January 2003, under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India and Iran signed a landmark agreement known as “the Delhi Declaration”. As per the declaration, “the combat against international terrorism should not be based on double standards. States that aid, abet and directly support international terrorism should be condemned”. The declaration added that in the field of oil and gas, the two sides would formulate a joint mechanism to promote cooperation. Prime Minister Vajpayee added that the joint India-Iran initiative to develop the Chahbahar port in Iran and to connect it to Afghanistan by road have started a new trend of investment in infrastructure development. During this period India was considering the construction of a pipeline from Iran through Pakistan, commonly know as the IPI (Iran-Pakistan-India) pipeline. This was the high point in the Indo-Iranian cooperation.

The first major blow to Indo-Iranian relationship came on 24 September 2005, when, for the first time, India voted against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) meeting in Vienna. The Indian government declared that “decisions are taken in conformity with our stated foreign policy and also in the interest of India and the world”. Iran was surprised by India’s vote against it. Following this, Ali Larijani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran said that “India was our friend”.

India voted against Iran at the IAEA to please the Bush administration to continue with the plans for a civilian nuclear cooperation between India and the US. In October 2008 both sides formally signed the civilian nuclear deal. However, since Barack Obama came to power in November 2008, the deal remains unimplemented due to his reluctance to the transfer of “dual-use technology” to India. In November 2009, India once again voted against Iran at the IAEA. Any chance of placating Iran was lost with this gesture. Countries like Brazil, South Africa, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt and Turkey abstained from the resolution. It is interesting to note how countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkey have been successful in maintaining their cordial relationship with the US and Iran at the same time.

India-US: Mid-life crisis?

The Indo-US relationship reached a new height during the UPA led government in Delhi and the Bush administration in Washington. This period saw a continued increase in Indo-US cooperation in many fields. The glorious hour of Indian diplomacy came with the successful signing of the ‘Indo-US Civilian Nuclear Agreement’ in October 2008. However, one thing which Indian strategic thinkers missed out was that it was also the starting point of the declining graph of Indo-US Cooperation. Since Barack Obama came to power in November 2009, the US administration have not shown much enthusiasm in going ahead with the nuclear deal. Honouring President Obama with the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize for his promotion of nuclear non-proliferation also have further complicated this issue.

After coming to power, President Obama had not been in a hurry to warm up relations with India. The Indian government and the Indian strategic community were lost in every sense, at this new posture taken by the US administration. Faced with the economic crisis back home, war in Afghanistan and the rise of Taliban in Pakistan, his priorities lie elsewhere. India no more enjoys the equal status it enjoyed under the Bush administration. For Obama, priorities are Afghanistan, Pakistan and China in the region. Indian policy makers and strategic thinkers misinterpreted the fact that Pakistan is US’s major non-NATO ally in the region and also underestimated Pakistan’s influence over the US policies in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia.

India-China: Brothers in Arms?

India’s obsession with China as its greatest security threat dates back to its defeat in the 1962 war with the Chinese. Since then, China has remained a hot topic for Indian diplomats, military strategists, policy makers and researchers. It is a fact that China is a threat to India, but not to the extent to which they are being projected by the media.

From the Indian point of view, all these Chinese development projects in the region are part of the larger Chinese plan to encircle India. For Indian military analysts and policy makers, the Chinese are everywhere in the region, including the Indian Ocean, which India has traditionally considered as its sphere of influence. The encirclement of India with ports, also known as ‘the string of pearls’, can be looked at from another perspective. Chinese are trying to safeguard their national interest and protect its economy. China’s dependence on imported oil and natural gas has led it to think of possible openings in this part of the world, rather than depending completely on the Malacca Strait for the passage of its vessels. They are trying to protect their back. In case of a future conflict with the US, China does not want the US to be successful in blockading its shipping lane. The reason behind developing ports in the Indian Ocean is to ensure continued oil and energy flow to China. It is wrong to interpret the increased Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean as the result of their obsession to encircle and monitor India. China will never be ready to give that much predominance to Indian military capabilities. The Chinese have never considered India as a major power or a threat. It considers India as a regional player. On the geopolitical map, the US is their only contender.

By projecting China as its greatest menace, it is India who is loosing in the Great Game nations play. India needs an approach to China diplomatically.

India-Russia: Rediscovering old Comrade

Since the 1990s the relationship between India and its long time ally and friend, Russia, has declined considerably. Changes in the government, economic policies and ideologies resulted in this drift. India’s leaning towards the US during the Bush administration has led to a weakened relation with Russia. But, with the visit of the Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin to India on 12 March 2010, both sides are trying to reset this. During this visit, Putin successfully secured a list of agreements and contracts.

This includes:

1: $1.5 billion deal for the supply of 29 additional MiG-29 Fulcrum D-based fighter aircraft.

2: An agreement to sign a contract on the joint development of a new fifth-generation fighter.

3: A revised deal of $2.3 billion on the upgraded Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier.

4 Deals to establish a joint venture to produce navigation equipment for GPS (global positioning system) and its Russian equivalent Glonass, and the use of Glonass signal for military use by India.

5: Agreements for the construction of up to 16 nuclear power plants in India worth tens of billions of dollars.

These contracts and agreements signed by both sides will play a vital role in increasing India’s cooperation with Russia. It is to be noted that, during Putin’s one day working visit to New Delhi, which did not include any state dinner, he went ahead with offering India with the technology and partnership that India had been looking for over the years, from the US and other western powers. Hopefully, this new boost in Indo-Russian relations can help to change the US centric mindset of the Indian strategic community and policy makers.


It is a fact that whichever government is in power in Delhi, be it the ruling Congress Party or the opposition Bharathiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s foreign policy remains US-centric. Even India’s strategic community is so obsessed with “America” that any future policy making, independent of US influence and aiming at India’s national interest would be a difficult task. Allowing India’s diplomatic relations to be controlled or reviewed by other countries like the US or the European Union, will only undermine India’s capacity to project itself as a rising power.

Looking at India’s geopolitical priorities and the policies and actions taken to achieve it, it is clear that India’s diplomatic capabilities are not very ingenious. It is important to learn from history and experience, rather than repeating the same mistakes again. India has to start engaging with countries with which it have limited contacts or strained relations. At this point, it is important for India to concentrate on improving its relations with Russia, China, Iran and other countries in Asia, Africa and South America. It is important that India engages closely with China, Iran and Russia on issues relating to regional security. All these countries have stakes in Afghanistan. Afghanistan should be taken as a common point to start communicating with these countries. India’s tailing of the US policy in Afghanistan is a barrier in conducting overt dialogues with Iran, China and Russia on regional security. Pakistan is cleverly using this Indian inability to strengthen its stand with all the other important players in the region. India can use regional groupings like South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as platforms to discuss regional security issues.

India has to make a clear and concerted approach in framing an independent foreign policy. Even though it might hurt some of India’s close allies, in the long run it will only strengthen India’s position on the international stage. It will demonstrate India’s independent policy making capacity, to protect its vital national interest.

China wary of US-Russia nuclear embrace

China wary of US-Russia nuclear embrace
By M K Bhadrakumar



United States President Barack Obama is about to pull off his biggest foreign policy achievement thus far as a perfect twin to the historic healthcare reform bill passed this week.

Obama was expected to pick up his "hotline" to his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev on Friday to okay the first arms control agreement of the post-Cold War era. The "reset" of US-Russia ties is under way, which is no mean achievement considering the army of cold warriors in Washington, including within Obama's administration.

However, at this historic point in contemporary world politics, such an arms control deal needs to be more than a bilateral Russian-American affair. Moscow had a hugely important visitor this week - China's Vice President Xi Jinping, who is widely regarded as the main candidate to succeed President Hu Jintao as the secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party at the 18th Party Congress in 2012.

The new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) agreement heralds an uncertain phase in the complex US-Russia-China equation, and Beijing will watch closely because China's rise could well be a leitmotif of the US maneuvering to "reset" ties with Russia.

In a resonant statement in Moscow on Tuesday, Xi all but suggested a Sino-Russian alliance. "Russia and China must become strategic props for each other in the future on all questions which have a strategic interest for Russia," Xi said.

Obama-Medvedev tandem
Xi's five-day visit to Moscow took place against the backdrop of tortuous START negotiations in Geneva that had lasted months finally yielding a deal, while Sino-American ties have run into rough weather over a spat over the value of the yuan exchange rate. The latter is "locking China and the US in a wrangle ... in which confrontational actions seem to be brewing," the China's People's Daily observed in a commentary on Wednesday.

Both Obama and Medvedev are keen on a START deal. For Obama, the new treaty is a foreign policy milestone that builds momentum for the April 12 "nuclear summit" he will be hosting in Washington. It also opens a pathway to a more ambitious round of arms cuts later, which taken together could be a defining legacy of his presidency.

Two, if Obama gets the "reset" started in the US's troubled relationship with Russia, this would not only ease tensions that accrued during the George W Bush era but also gain leverage to influence the Russian position on vital issues of foreign policy such as the Iran nuclear issue, terrorism, Middle East, energy - and most importantly - China's rise.

Medvedev's is equally in need of an "achievement" politically, and nothing enhances his cultivated image as the reformist in the Kremlin than being seen as capable of making a difference to Russia's ties with the West. Medvedev has squarely placed himself in the limelight for the theatrical nuclear roadshow slated for April 12.

The Kremlin overruled the Russian military's advice that Moscow ought to insist on any new arms pact specifically restricting American plans for a missile defense system based in Europe. Under the new pact, according to media sources privy to the negotiations, each side would have to cut its deployed strategic warheads by one-third to 1,550, while the number of launchers would be halved to 800 and number of nuclear-armed missiles and heavy bombers would be capped at 700 each.

There is no provision limiting missile defense programs as such, except a broad non-binding recognition of the relationship between offensive weapons and missile defense. The Kremlin seems to have accepted that it is not conceivable that parameters of anti-ballistic missile systems could be put into a treaty dealing with strategic offensive arms. Obama has, for the time being at least, put on hold or terminated any major strategic ballistic missile development programs.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin weighs that theater missile defense systems deal with the potentials of countries like China, Iran or North Korea and Russia, and the US could even pool efforts in their development.

The arms pact helps project an image of Russia as the US's key interlocutor in maintaining the global strategic balance, and such an image raises its prestige in the eyes of the world although Russia is no longer a world power.

Given the economic difficulties and paucity of funds for weapon development, a de facto reduction of Russia's strategic forces has become inevitable in the near-term, whereas the US has no such problem maintaining its nuclear potential at the current level.

Moscow keenly seeks progress in Russian-American relations. The "reset" so far has been largely in atmospherics, and Moscow estimates that real progress in bilateral cooperation with the US on any sphere will be hard to expect without the START follow-on treaty.

A helping hand from China
Moscow, therefore, is a net beneficiary of the new arms reduction pact. Arguably, Russia has little choice at the moment. To quote Sergei Rogov, director of the Institute of the USA and Canada at the Russian Academy of Sciences, in a recent interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the new treaty is a "dire necessity" for Russia.

He said: "The Americans have been developing extremely powerful and precise conventional weapons. They are good against practically all objects, probably save for very deep bunkers and such like. It means that these conventional weapons could be launched at targets whose elimination previously required nuclear weapons.

"And since the US is the only country possessing such [conventional] weapons, it can afford to make this noble gesture [to Moscow] and suggest reduction of nuclear weapons. By and large, Obama's administration promotes a policy that combines anti-nuclear rhetoric and modernization of nuclear weapons."

Are we seeing the end of history? Far from it. The Moscow-based Levada Center, an independent, non-governmental poll research organization, just found out that only 14% of Russians advocate the Kremlin striving for closer relations with the US, whereas 73% believe the US to be "the aggressor that is striving to bring all countries in the world under its control".

The Levada Center told Interfax news agency, "This data is evidence of support by the Russian population for the Kremlin's consistently tough position concerning the US foreign policy."

Thus, Xi's visit to Moscow came at a turning point in the US-Russia-China equation. Xi obviously intended to demonstrate that China's ties with Russia are as important for Beijing as its relations with the US. Indeed, neither Beijing nor Moscow has shown willingness to treat their relationship to be in the nature of an alliance.

But, through Xi's visit, as Vladimir Portyakov, deputy director of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences put it, "Beijing wants to deepen the climate of trust that already exists between the two countries ... It is a favorable factor for us [Russia] in geopolitical terms, and Russia may feel more confident during talks with the US and European powers."

At a time when the US is "no longer an enemy, but also not yet a friend" - to use Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's most recent description - China's support does work as a favorable factor for Moscow. Thus, disregarding the US push to "isolate" Iran, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin recently announced Moscow's intention to commission the Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran in August.

To be sure, while the initialing of the new START deal is just round the corner, the hard part may only be beginning, since Moscow needs to factor in that the new START deal must win US Senate ratification, which will not be easy.

Meanwhile, the rivalries in the post-Soviet republics keep simmering. In the latest eruption of Great Game rivalries in Central Asia, no sooner than Moscow dropped the idea last December to deploy a military contingent in Batken, in southern Kyrgyzstan, than Washington made a counter-offer to Bishkek to increase its own presence in the region on top of the 1,000 American military personnel already stationed at the Manas airbase.

The growing US presence in Kyrgyzstan is a cause of concern for both Moscow and Beijing. Batken is close to both the Ferghana Valley, the cradle of radical Islam in the region, and Xinjiang. Kyrgyzstan hosts a sizeable Uyghur diaspora.

Washington has been aggressively expanding its influence in Kyrgyzstan. The family-owned businesses of Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev earns more than US$80 million annually from the Pentagon's procurement contracts for Manas base.

The tandem in the Kremlin
A Kremlin source described Xi's meeting with Putin as "extremely cordial and productive". Putin told Xi that Russia has "always supported China on most sensitive issues, including the Taiwan problem. We intend to further build relations with China on the basis of respect for our common interests".

Curiously, it may seem that Beijing readily relates to Putin, whereas Washington feels encouraged by Medvedev, the "European in the Kremlin". During last week's visit to Moscow by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Medvedev's upbeat assessment of US-Russian relations was that they "are honest and open with agreements honored".

But Putin's foreign policy aide, Yuri Ushakov, said Putin "frankly" discussed with Clinton the entire range of contentious issues - trade, missile defense, Iran and the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a Cold War-era law imposing trade restrictions on Russia.

Ushakov noted, "Putin said plainly that Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization directly depended on the political will of the US administration" (Russia applied for membership to the trade organization in 1993), and he used "interesting and expletive" words while informing Clinton of the Russian position on Georgia and Ukraine. Putin told Clinton that new UN Security Council sanctions against Iran are possible, but they may be counter-productive.

In sum, as a commentator put it, Beijing, Moscow and Washington are like "unwieldy participants in a cultural dance that none can quit without suffering real pain. The trick, however, is how to coordinate the steps so that the participants aren't tromping all over each others' feet."

The yuan exchange controversy is the latest example of this threesome waltz. China has openly expressed the hope that Russia, which also holds large reserves of US dollars, will "take an objective approach and will support China" against pressure from Washington. There has been no official word from the Kremlin so far.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Obama squeezed between Israel and Iran

Obama squeezed between Israel and Iran
By Pepe Escobar

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) annual show in Washington would hardly be out of place in a Quentin Tarantino movie; picture a giant hall crammed with 7,500 very powerful people regimented by a very powerful lobby - plus half of the United States Senate and more than a third of the congress - basically calling in unison for Palestinian and Iranian blood.

The AIPAC 2010 show predictably was yet one more "bomb Iran" special; but it was also a call to arms against the Barack Obama administration, as far as the turbo-charging of the illegal colonization of East Jerusalem is concerned.

The administration has reacted to the quarrel with a masterpiece
of schizophrenic kabuki (classical Japanese dance-drama) theater. Corporate media insisted there was a deep "crisis" between the unshakeable allies. Nonsense. One just has to look at the facts.

Only 10 days after scolding Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for 43 minutes over the phone, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton showed up at AIPAC spinning the usual platitudes. At least she talked about a "change of facts on the ground" in Palestine and stressed the current status quo is untenable. Netanyahu for his part apparently told Clinton in private (and later Obama as well) that Israel would take "confidence-building measures" in the West Bank, but would continue anyway to build settlements like there's no tomorrow.

When Clinton switched to Iran demonization mode, she was met with universal rapture. The Obama administration will "not accept a nuclear-armed Iran"; is working on sanctions "that will bite"; and the leadership in Iran must know there are "real consequences" for not coming clean with their nuclear program. The demonization seemed to turn Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei into a paradigm of wisdom. Khamenei remarked this week, "If they are extending a metal hand inside a velvet glove, we won't accept it."

Israel follows, Washington rules supremo...
AIPAC arm-twisted members of the US Congress to sign a letter to the White House calling for the US to bypass the United Nations Security Council and unilaterally sanction Iran. And AIPAC also urged lawmakers to pass with no comments the annual US$3 billion US aid to Israel. This means the new made-in-USA F-35 fighter jets Israel buys will be basically financed by US taxpayers.

No surprises here. This is a congress that backed Israel's assault in Gaza in late 2008 and condemned the Goldstone Report on Israeli atrocities in that conflict by a vote of 334 to 36. After all, the Democratic party depends heavily on very wealthy Jewish - and Zionist - donors for a chunk of its budget....and on the power behind the power in DC.... and CIA...

Just one day after Israel's Interior Minister Eli Yishai announced the building of 1,600 exclusively Jewish apartments in East Jerusalem (part of a planned, non-negotiable 50,000 which will block it from becoming the capital of a Palestinian state and prevent Palestinian residents of the city from traveling to the West Bank), publicly humiliated US Vice President Joe Biden went to Tel Aviv University and told his audience he is ... a Zionist.

He added, "Throughout my career, Israel has not only remained close to my heart but it has been the center of my work as a United States Senator and now as vice president of the United States."

Of course it does not matter that General David "I'm positioning myself for 2012" Petraeus, chief of US Central Command, told the US Senate Armed Services Committee that the Israeli-Arab conflict "foments anti-American sentiment due to a perception of US favoritism for Israel". Even though "perception" may be the understatement of the millennium, as a potential Republican presidential candidate Petraeus knows he will be in deep trouble with the Republican hardcore Christians and with the Christian-Zionist fringe.

When Obama, as a presidential candidate, addressed AIPAC on June 3, 2008, he said, "We will also use all elements of American power to pressure Iran ... I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Everything in my power. Everything and I mean everything." Obama even pulled a Netanyahu avant la lettre and declared, "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided."

At AIPAC this week, Netanyahu said the Israelis were already building in Jerusalem 3,000 years ago and will continue to do so. Even without referring to Israel's religious supremacist and colonialist approach to Jerusalem for these past few decades, historian and Middle East expert Juan Cole at his blog "Informed Comment" demolished Bibi's claim. For instance, "Adherents of Judaism did not found Jerusalem. It existed for perhaps 2,700 years before anything we might recognize as Judaism arose. Jewish rule may have been no longer than 170 years or so."

Cole points out that Muslims, Egyptians, Romans, Iranians and Greeks have the greatest claim on the city.

All in all, it's no wonder Stephen Green, in Taking Sides: America's Secret Relations with Militant Israel, a book published in 1984, had already noted how "since 1953, Israel, and friends of Israel in America, have determined the broad outlines of US policy in the region. It has been left to American presidents to implement that policy, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, and to deal with tactical issues."

Free-for-all Zionism

Former Moldovan bouncer turned Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is basically a spokesman for Zionist settlers and a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union. He can tell the German weekly magazine Der Spiegel that "Iran is threatening the whole world" and still get away with it. No wonder multitudes across the developing world - and not only Muslim lands - increasingly deplore Zionism policies of occupation/colonization, targeted assassinations, Lebensraum (living space) and degrading Palestinians.

But crisis? What crisis? Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies could not have put it better. "Someone seems to have told the Obama administration that a series of polite requests equals pressure. It doesn't. Real pressure looks like this: 'Please stop settlements.' Answer: 'No.' 'Then, you know that [the] $30 billion that [former president George W] Bush arranged for you from US tax money, and we agreed to pay - you can kiss that goodbye.' That's what pressure looks like."

It won't happen. This "crisis" between Tel Aviv and Washington is a non-event. On the other hand, no one knows exactly whatever hardball Obama and Netanyahu played behind closed doors for three-and-a-half hours in Washington. Did Netanyahu "spit into Obama's eye", according to Israeli Labor Party member Eitan Cabel? Or was this was just more kabuki designed to obscure a not-so-silent drive towards an attack on Iran - where once again fresh American blood will be spilled to placate a non-existent "existential threat" to Israel?




Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007) and Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge. His new book, just out, is Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).

U.S. Bases in Colombia Rattle the Region


U.S. Bases in Colombia Rattle the Region

Source: The Progressive


On the shores of the Magdalena River, in a lush green valley dotted with cattle ranches and farms, sits the Palanquero military base, an outpost equipped with Colombia’s longest runway, housing for 2,000 troops, a theater, a supermarket, and a casino.

Palanquero is at the heart of a ten-year, renewable military agreement signed between the United States and Colombia on October 30, 2009, which gives Washington access to seven military bases in the country. Though officials from the U.S. and Colombian governments contend the agreement is aimed at fighting narcotraffickers and guerrillas within Colombian borders, a U.S. Air Force document states the deal offers a “unique opportunity” for “conducting full spectrum operations” in the region against various threats, including “anti-U.S. governments.”

The Pentagon sought access to the bases in Colombia after Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa canceled the lease for the U.S. military base in Manta, Ecuador. The U.S. capability in Colombia will now be greater than at Manta, which worries human rights advocates in Colombia and left-leaning governments throughout the region.

“The main purpose of expanding these bases is to take strategic control of Latin America,” opposition senator Jorge Enrique Robledo of the Polo Democrático Alternativo told me over the phone from Bogotá.

Every president in South America outside of Colombia is against the bases agreement, with Hugo Chávez of neighboring Venezuela being the most critical. Chávez said that by signing the deal the United States was blowing “winds of war” over the region, and that the bases were “a threat against us.”

“Colombia decided to hand over its sovereignty to the United States,” said Chávez in a televised meeting with government ministers. “Colombia today is no longer a sovereign country. . . . It is a kind of colony.” The Venezuelan president responded by deploying troops to the border in what has become an increasingly tense battle of words and flexing of military muscle.

Correa in neighboring Ecuador said the new bases agreement “constitutes a grave danger for peace in Latin America.”

Colombian President Alvaró Uribe dismissed critics and said the increased U.S. collaboration was necessary to curtail violence in the country. Uribe told The Washington Post, “We are not talking about a political game; we are talking about a threat that has spilled blood in Colombian society.”

But plans for the expansion of the bases show that the intent is to prepare for war and intimidate the region, likely spilling more blood in the process.

The Palanquero base, the largest of the seven in the agreement, will be expanding with $46 million in U.S. taxpayers’ money. Palanquero is already big enough to house 100 planes, and its 10,000-foot runway allows three planes to take off at once. It can accommodate enormous C-17 planes, which can carry large numbers of troops for distances that span the hemisphere without needing to refuel.

The intent of the base, according to U.S. Air Force documents, “is to leverage existing infrastructure to the maximum extent possible, improve the U.S. ability to respond rapidly to crisis, and assure regional access and presence at minimum cost. . . . Palanquero will provide joint use capability to the U.S. Army, Air Force, Marines, and U.S. Interagency aircraft and personnel.”

The United States and Colombia may also see the bases as a way to cultivate ties with other militaries.

“The bases will be used to strengthen the military training of soldiers from other countries,” says John Lindsay-Poland, the co-director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation Task Force on Latin America and the Caribbean Program. “There is already third-country training in Colombia, and what the Colombia government says now is that this agreement will strengthen that.”

“This deal is a threat to the new governments that have emerged,” says Enrique Daza, the director of the Hemispheric Social Alliance, currently based in Bogotá. These new governments are “demanding sovereignty, autonomy, and independence in the region, and this bases agreement collides directly” with that, he says.

The Obama Administration, with the new agreement, is further collaborating with the Colombian military in spite of that institution’s grave human rights abuses in recent years.

In a July 2009 letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Senators Patrick Leahy and Christopher Dodd wrote: “What are the implications of further deepening our relationship with the Colombian military at a time of growing revelations about the widespread falsos positivos (“false positives”) scandal, in which the Colombian military recruited many hundreds (some estimates are as high as 1,600) of boys and young men for jobs in the countryside that did not exist and then summarily executed them to earn bonuses and vacation days?”

The military base agreement needs to be understood in the context of two other U.S. initiatives in Colombia.

First, Plan Colombia, which began under President Clinton, committed billions of dollars ostensibly to fight the war on drugs but also to fighting the guerrillas, intensifying the country’s already brutal conflict in rural areas. This has led to increasing displacement of people from areas that are strategically important for mining multinationals.

Second, the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement, which was signed in 2006, could pry open the country to more U.S. corporate exploitation. But it has been met with opposition in the United States, delaying its ratification. Daza says the signing of the bases deal is part of “a military strategy that complements the push for the free trade agreement.” The trade accord will serve “transnational corporate investments,” and these investments, he says, “are sustained by a military relationship.”

Opposition to the military bases agreement is vocal in Colombia. In a column written in July 2009, Senator Robledo denounced it, saying, “There is no law that allows bases of this type in Colombia.” One struggle, Robledo said, is on the legal and political front. The other is among social movements in Colombia and beyond. “It is important to organize a type of democratic citizens’ movement, a national campaign against these foreign bases, as well as a continental social alliance that promotes the denunciation of this agreement,” he says.

Daza is working with Mingas, a cross-border solidarity organization consisting of activists in Colombia, Canada, and the United States. Mingas wrote a letter to Obama, condemning the President’s decision to go forward with the deal on the bases. “At the Summit of the Americas in April 2009 you promised to foster a ‘new sense of partnership’ between the United States and the rest of the Western Hemisphere,” the letter states. “But your Administration has yet to address the grave concerns expressed by national leaders throughout Central and South America and the Caribbean regarding the U.S.-Colombia military base agreement.”

By signing this bases agreement, and by equivocating over the coup in Honduras, Obama has sent ominous signals to Latin America.

“Obama has not renounced the policies of Bush,” Robledo says. “Speaking in economic and military terms, on the fundamental issues, the similarities between Bush and Obama are bigger than the differences. Obama has not produced a change.”

Benjamin Dangl is the author of “The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia,” the forthcoming “Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America,” and the editor of Toward Freedom and Upside Down World.