By Tom Plate, Pacific Perspectives Columnist
LOS ANGELES -- Nuance and ambiguity are often necessary prerequisites to equanimity in international relations. And sometimes these fogs of diplomacy become especially urgent as the stakes become more murderously risky. Last week a senior American politician from the plain state of Indiana did his best to juggle a raft of nuances and ambiguities on a pressing issue of war and peace that would have upended the mental balance of a swami. Fortunately, he did it well.
The occasion was Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings about tensions between the nuclear powers of South Asia -- India and Pakistan. Since their independence in 1947, the two have gotten along not much better than Siamese fighting fish. But recently the leaders of these massively important countries (Pakistan suddenly courted by Washington to help in the 9/11 crackdown; India now hotly courted by globalizing American CEOs) have been experimenting with the high road of negotiation and reconciliation. They have been so doing partly at Washington's tender (but firm) and quiet (but insistent) urging. The experiment deserves to continue.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee may not today be as central to U.S. policy as it was; the medium of television has seen to it that almost everything is deconstructed down to the activities of the Executive Branch. And so Chairman Richard Lugar (R.- Indiana) may not tower over the capital as illustrious predecessors once did. Even so, as the Constitutional structure of the three branches of government has not been suspended, Lugar heads a most important oversight of U.S. foreign policy.
In opening the hearings, the chairman offered the kind of advice for both Pakistan and India with which each of their partisans could quarrel. At times, for Pakistan, the longest-serving senator in the state's political history sounded somewhat like a finger-waving teacher talking down to a wayward student, while offering oodles of respect to India. But Pakistan must accept the necessary genuflections of American politicians to a democracy such as India's and to countervailing public (if not private) risibility toward regimes that originate from naked military power.
At times, though, Lugar, seeking to balance his remarks, would depict India as only grudgingly involved in the peace process, frequently indulging in rhetorical posturing and foot-dragging until its national elections (as soon as April) are sorted out. Stay cool, India and its supporters here in the U.S. and around the world: You must accept that America's mediation between the two nuclear powers cannot be effective if it as seen as biased toward one side. Again, the public placement of a plague on both your houses, while patently unfair to one side (India), is necessary to engage the trust of the other (Pakistan) if that bilateral relationship is to be moved to a higher level of discourse.
Moreover, India must also accept that Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the target of three assassination attempts since taking over, appears to be a different kind of Pakistani leader. In tilting toward Washington after 9/11, he incurred the wrath of his country's dangerous extremists, but in the process may be forging a presumed plurality of moderate Muslims into an effective constituency for his country's modernization. The world should take note that earlier this month, the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb program, heretofore a heroic national figure, was sacked from his high-level scientific position and placed under house arrest. Later this month, unprecedented bilateral talks are to take place between senior diplomats from India and Pakistan; for once, the contentious issue of the disputed territory of Kashmir is to be seriously joined.
Pakistan, under the current regime anyway, appears to have concluded that a continued cold war with an India increasingly courted by the West and even by China is a loser's game. For in recently releasing astonishing details of clandestine Pakistani shipments of military technology over the years to Iran, Libya and North Korea, the government in Islamabad is crossing a bridge heading west. Undoubtedly, die-hard extremists, claiming fidelity to Islam and enmity with foreign infidels, will seek to blow the bridge up.
The Pakistani leader is now out on a limb that New Delhi must not saw off. This nation of more than one billion people depends on stable relations with all its neighbors and a domestic tranquility not constantly roiled by extremist Hinduism and consequent violence with its 214 million resident Muslims. The greater, larger, democratic nation must now do more to help bolster the least antagonistic Pakistani government in recent memory.
Should the hulking shadow of the U.S. now recede to leave the two South Asian principals alone? Well, yes, said Lugar: “Only Pakistan and India can resolve the issues between them.” On the other hand, said the chairman in the very next sentence at the hearing: “Yet, it is more important than ever that the United States sustain active engagement in South Asia to encourage continuation of this positive momentum.”
Foggy or not, the chairman has it almost exactly right. Future South Asia stability depends on the U. S. being involved, as long as it is not seen to be so intensely involved. This is ambiguous and nuanced enough. UCLA Professor Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is also a columnist with The Straits Times of Singapore.
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Tom Plate is a professor of Policy and Communication Studies at UCLA. He is a regular columnist for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, the South China Morning Post, The Straits Times and the Honolulu Advertiser. He is a member of the World Economic Forum, and the Pacific Council on International policy. The author of five books, he has worked at TIME, the Los Angeles Times and the Daily Mail of London. He established the Asia Pacific Media Network in 1998 and was its director until 2003.
For publication and reprint rights, contact Tom Plate at firstname.lastname@example.org or John Simpson (email@example.com) of the Los Angeles Times Syndicate International.
The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.