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To intervene – or not

Introduction to Ambassador Deo’s talk by Kunal Lunawat at YWCA, Mumbai, on March 2, 2012

I would ask you to pardon a rather impertinent introduction, but let me tell you how a previous Ambassador had once described Indian foreign policy. According to him, “Indian foreign policy is like the love-making of elephants, conducted at a very high level accompanied with much bellowing but the results are not known for years.”

Further, a professor of mine went on to describe the agents of such foreign policy – the ambassadors, often the best and brightest minds of India – as more difficult to reach out to than intelligence agents. In his words, they were a ‘secret society’ unto themselves.

But, that I am compelled to say was in the past. If you are one among the cattle class, all you need to do is log on to twitter and see how approachable the Ministry of External Affairs has become. 

Jokes and more impertinence aside, Mrs. Neelam Deo today reflects the changing face of India’s foreign policy. As the previous ambassador of Denmark and Ivory Coast and Former Consul General of New York, you only need to log on to bigthink.com/neelamdeo to get her candid opinions from Religion to Education to Thomas Friedman.

This marks a subtle and significant shift in how foreign policy is disseminated to the citizens of this country. It is important because in our attempt to become an informed citizenry, it is essential for us to know the opinions and views of diplomats like Mrs. Deo who have been the architects of India’s image in the outer world. It would not be an understatement if I were to say that it is a privilege for the audience here to have someone like Mrs Deo with us – someone who has been there and done that – to tell us more about Indian foreign policy in the context of recent developments in Syria and Maldives. 

While as a country we have moved ahead by leaps and bounds after our foray into the information economy, there has been an unfortunate casualty – and that has been the veracity of information itself. As we transition from an information economy to a quick fix sensational economy, talks like these and views from personalities like Mrs. Deo will allow us to step back, remove the sensation from the information and make us better critiques of all that is good, bad, essential and political in India’s foreign policy.

Kunal Lunawat graduated from Yale College in 2011 and works for a private equity firm in Mumbai.

Ambassador’s address

Television is full of scenes and reports of attacks on civilians, particularly in the city of Homs in Syria. This is as true of Western TV channels, sometimes with journalists embedded with the so called Free Syrian Army, as it is of Indian TV channels which often take their footage, or at least their cues, from their Western colleagues. Human Rights and other NGO’s are also right in there pleading and hectoring their governments to take a stand, “to do something, say something”

There was quite a lot of criticism of the government of India for voting against intervention in Libya last year and now some satisfaction that India has voted, alongside the West, on the UNGA Resolution calling for an end to the violence in Syria. This despite the fact that the same Resolution in the Security Council was vetoed by Russia and China. India voted in favour but as everyone knows GA Resolutions do not get implemented, as happened with the Resolution passed, with overwhelming support, for Palestinian statehood in September last year.

So what should people and their governments do when there is unrest and its bloody suppression beamed into your living rooms all day? The dilemma is especially acute when national politics such as the U.S. presidential election campaign is underway and the influence of Jewish lobby is powerful in certain U.S. states. The pressures to “act” against Iran have built up in the U.S. in the way Tamil Nadu politics in India impacts India’s relations with Sri Lanka and puts pressure to intervene with military covert force in the recent civil war.

My view is that for long term stability, it is better for the local dynamics to play out and that the outcome be judged on the basis of the price paid by the people of that country. In other words we are discussing questions relating to sovereignty.

In the most recent case, in our own region, with the fall of the Nasheed government in the Maldives, the most important players– India, The U.S., the UK, and the UN all recognized and supported the successor with indecent haste. Since then, there has been some walking back by negotiating support for early elections, indirectly justifying former president Nasheed’s charge that he had been the victim of ‘a sort of military coup d’état.

Maldives is a very different case from the way the international community, which includes western governments and Sunni Arab allies, wants Syria to be dealt with. Between the current President, Bashar al-Assad and his father, the family has ruled Syria for the last 41 years? For decades the French, the former colonizing power, has been influencing events in Syria and the Levant. So have the Americans, who at one time, theorized that befriending Syria and detaching it from Iran would be the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue – the presumption resting on the withdrawal of support from Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Beirut. In pursuit of this, numerous European Presidents and American Secretaries of State visited the same Bashar al Assad, referring to him as part of the solution. But, the Israelis did not oblige by handing over the occupied Golan Heights. Now Bashar is being reviled because Syria is seen as an obstacle to completing the isolation of Iran.

Covert and military interventions have become fashionable since the commencement of the Arab uprisings, cloaked in the UN doctrine of Responsibility to Protect. However, each Arab country has been dealt with differently. The Tunisian dictator was given safe haven in Saudi Arabia, which is NOW leading the charge against Syria. Elections in Tunisia brought in the ‘Anhadda’ OR Muslim Brotherhood with an overwhelming majority. But the election of the Islamist Hamas in the Gaza strip a few years ago was rejected and remains the excuse for breaking off negotiations with the Palestinians. The parliamentary election in Egypt has also delivered a massive victory to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists. The original youthful agitators who achieved the overthrow of Mubarak had opposed early elections and are appalled by the Brotherhood’s closing of ranks with the military. Demonstrators are again filling Tahrir square and demanding the military hand over power. Meanwhile, the revolt of the 70% Shia minority in Bahrain has been crushed with the help of Saudi troops.

The Libyan case is well known. A Franco-British invasion was converted into a NATO operation with an apparently reluctant U.S. ‘leading from behind’. Although the UN Resolution on Libya had only allowed measures to protect the civilian population, regime change became the acknowledged objective and has been achieved through the assassination of Gaddhafi by rebels after being driven to the ground by a NATO bombing raid.

What needs to be examined is whether this particular intervention has served the interests of the Libyan people. Without question, Gadhaffi was a tyrant and thousands of people had been victims of his erratic and criminal behavior. Nevertheless, American and European leaders were happy to deal with him in order curtail his nuclear program – and more importantly to have access to Libya’s oil wealth.

The outcome of the NATO intervention in Libya is that the country is splintered, parts of it controlled by tribal militias, at odds with each other. The much vaunted Transitional Authority whose legitimacy and authority was bolstered by Western and Sunni Arab governments, is struggling ineffectually to control the militias while generously awarding contracts to Western oil companies.

Is this a desirable fate for multi-ethnic, multi-religious Syria which is roughly speaking 70% Sunni, with a 12-15% ruling Shia Allawite minority and the rest Maronite Christians? The ‘Free Syria Army’ is a Sunni-led organization, which derives its leadership from long time dissidents based in France who have a newly-found relevance. NATO ally Turkey provides safe haven, training, and covertly channels money and arms from the West.  At the behest of Israel the strategic objective is to strangle Iran by ridding it of Syria, its last ally in the region, along with the emasculation of Hamas and Hezbollah. This is an objective shared by Sunni Saudi Arabia in its rivalry with Shia Iran. It also meshes with Turkey’s reawakened ambitions and desire for revenge for the earlier support extended to its nemesis, the Kurdish separatist PKK.

Before jumping into Syria, or any other country it may be salutary to recall the case of gas-rich Algeria in the 1990s. After years of Western pressure the dictatorship called elections. When it became clear that they would be won by the Islamist opposition Party FIS, the last phase of elections was called off and the FIS banned. Some 15 years of mayhem ensued in which 60,000 to 150,000 people are estimated to have died.

We must ask the question: is there a better way to deal with the democratic upsurge in Arab and other countries?

Recent more successful transitions, such as those following the dissolution of the Soviet Union suggest one pattern. These were achieved largely by the people themselves, devoid of military intervention, even though decades of Western Cold War propaganda played a part. A particularly inspiring example was the separation of Czechoslovakia into two countries entirely peacefully. Similarly, South American countries have been able to rid themselves of their American-backed military dictators after decades of local activism. Brazil is the most important example.

In some ways, another example closer to India is the troubled transition in Nepal. After some ten years of war between the communist parties and the monarchy, India had helped to negotiate a compromise, which resulted in the emergence of a republic. Although the various political groupings have not been able to finish drafting a new constitution, at least the numerous impulses of Nepalese society are finding a voice. The outcome may not be ideal, it will at least be the product of local dynamics, and hopefully stable on a longer-term basis.

If in the Arab countries, a closer association between religion and governance is what the local population wants then, it must be allowed to prevail without a heavy price being paid, as in Algeria. Look across India’s border and you see, ten years after the invasion of Afghanistan, the Americans negotiating with the Taliban for a face-saving way to leave. What have the Afghan people gained from a war that cost trillions of dollars, had the support of the American people and was the war President Obama called the right war rather than George W. Bush’s wrong war against Iraq? Everyone should think long and hard before giving in to the easy impulse to do something, anything.

In closing it is important to note that right now India is being accused of ingratitude to the U.S. and lack of leadership because it has expressed its intention to continue purchasing oil from Iran. But pressuring India is to demand that India ignore its historical, geographic and energy imperatives to respond to America and Israel’s exaggerated threat perceptions–something even its European NATO allies took years to do. Surely governments must weigh the cost of their foreign policy positions. For India to shrug off our long-standing non-aligned, independent foreign policy would promote neither our own interests, nor peace in our wider region. It would only silence a different and important perspective in international debate.

Neelam Deo is India’s former ambassador to Denmark and Ivory Coast, and served in Washington and New York. She is the director and co-founder of Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.