We have seen several comical examples of America’s open diplomacy in recent weeks. Their aim appears to be either to bounce other parties into confronting a country regarded by President George W Bush as part of the ‘axis of evil’. Or, they are crude attempts at hedging the risks America faces in the region after the electoral humiliation of its ally, President Musharraf, and the emergence of a more independent civilian government in Pakistan.
Two examples, in particular, come to mind. First, the release by the Bush administration of pictures of what was supposed to be a Syrian nuclear reactor before Israel bombed it in September 2007. The satellite pictures of a building, instead of a larger complex normally associated with a uranium enrichment plant, have generated a lot of confusion recently. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the nuclear watchdog, and US lawmakers are angry that the administration sat on the evidence for such a long time. The head of the agency, Dr Mohammad El-Baradei, has bitterly complained that the Bush administration gave his organisation the evidence on the day it was produced before members of the US Congress.
The IAEA has asked for more information, so it can investigate claims that Syria has been running a secret nuclear programme, which, the Americans say, was not intended for peaceful purposes, and that North Korea has been helping Syria in the project. The US statement goes on to call for further action against Iran and help America’s efforts to end these activities and prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.
Again, it adds to the confusion, because, only last December, the US National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Iran had suspended its nuclear programme in 2003. Not surprisingly, the American statement is also partial – it does not mention Israel, a country known to possess nuclear weapons and one which does not cooperate with the nuclear watchdog.
Was the release of pictures of the ‘Syrian site’ an attempt by administration hawks to sabotage a deal with North Korea over the nuclear issue and a possible deal over the Golan Heights between Syria and Israel? The White House years of President Bush have been overshadowed by the ‘war on terror’. He would like some foreign policy success in the twilight of his presidency. Or was it sheer incompetence, of which there has been plenty during his administration?
A few days before the Syria-North Korea nuclear episode, the Bush administration tried to enlist India to confront Iran. President Ahmadinejad was to visit Delhi on 29 April. The State Department spokesman, Tom Casey, appeared to tell the Indian government publicly to press the Iranian leader to suspend his uranium enrichment activities and comply with the other requirements regarding Iran’s nuclear programme.
The Indians were not pleased and, barely maintaining diplomatic niceties, told Washington to mind its own business. The Foreign Ministry in Delhi responded by saying that both India and Iran were capable of managing all aspects of their relationship and neither country needed any guidance. The attempt to exert public pressure on India was particularly crass because it had, in the past, supported international attempts to refer Iran’s nuclear programme to the Security Council.
Now is a particularly sensitive time for India. It is holding talks with Tehran on a multi-billion dollar gas pipeline deal. In light of America’s own intelligence estimate of December 2007, the Indian government was hoping that now was the right time for the talks to progress. The State Department intervention was unexpected as it was crude. And the Indians feel big enough to stand up and say ‘No’ to the US administration.
This is not the only occasion when the Indians have been irritated by the conduct of US diplomacy through the media. Immediately after Pakistan’s general election in February, a Congressional delegation visited both Pakistan and India. The Americans realised that their policy in the region was in serious trouble following the humiliation of President Musharraf, the military man on whom they had depended too much. So, to hedge the risks, several members of the Congressional delegation tried to set a deadline for India to conclude the proposed nuclear deal with America by summer 2008. The Indian government wants the deal, because it would open the doors to obtain new technology for India. But it is facing delay because of opposition from the Marxists, on whose support the coalition government in Delhi relies.
The Indians were not going to accept any deadline set by Washington. They told the Congressional delegation that ‘we do not work to deadlines’. In a face-to-face meeting in Washington a few weeks later, the Indian Foreign Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, gave Condoleezza Rice the same message. India would like the deal, but no deadlines please. The US Secretary of State had to back down and say that the situation had not reached ‘the now or never stage’ and there was still time to try to finish the work.
The hawks who dominated the Bush administration possessed a fatal confidence in American power and in their own capability to compel others to do what they wanted. In the twilight phase of the Bush presidency, that is no more the case.