US Members of Congress excel at four things: fund raising, getting re-elected, protecting sunk costs and the jobs of their constituents, and imposing sanctions.
In theory, punishing sanctions are supposed to become means toward diplomatic ends, but in practice, Capitol Hill gravitates toward means and is myopic about ends. One reason: Imposing sanctions is a safe political choice, while endorsing diplomatic engagement can be politically risky. Layer upon layer of punishing sanctions makes deal making harder.
President Obama is now at a critical juncture. His opposite number in Tehran, President Hassan Rouhani, and Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have publically signaled that they are open to a nuclear deal. Obama’s trademark tentativeness and deliberation can betray him now. After the messages emanating from Tehran, I hope and expect him to go for a significant deal, rather than nibbling around its edges. There are trap doors ahead, but this is a time for high-stakes engagement, not punishment.
All eyes will be on the diplomatic dance between Washington and Tehran. The warm-ups for another high-stakes dance, between India and Pakistan, are just beginning.
A new Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, has been elected by a comfortable margin. Nawaz, a successful businessman, has made no secret of his desire for more normal relations with India, including greater cross-border trade. A number of deals, carefully wordsmithed by previous governments, await the proper alignment of the stars over the subcontinent.
Nawaz is facing formidable problems and is moving tentatively on all fronts. Internal security currently trumps India as Pakistan’s top-most preoccupation. Consequently, Rawalpindi and Islamabad are focused on the 2014 Afghan elections rather than the 2014 Indian elections. This could change quickly, if the Bharatiya Janata Party’s nominee, Narendra Modi, succeeds in forming the next Indian coalition government. If so, he would become the first Indian Prime Minister previously denied a US visa for his presumed role in anti-Muslim riots in his home state of Gujarat.
The current Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, has always wanted to normalize relations with Pakistan. He is at the end of long innings, a much-diminished figure nominally leading a weak coalition government. His Congress Party has yet to name its standard bearer against Modi – perhaps the untested and ambivalent Rahul Gandhi. Next year, India will have a “choice and not an echo” kind of national election.
In the meantime, Nawaz and Manmohan Singh seem too hemmed in to make significant deals. Flare ups along the Kashmir divide, initiated from the Pakistan side, reminded Nawaz of constraints on his freedom of action. He is currently trying to cobble together political support to ramp up military operations against the Tehrik e Taliban Pakistan along the Afghan border. This will be a hard slog for the Army and jarring for city-dwellers in Pakistan, who can expect even more mass casualty attacks. Dealing with Punjab-based groups, like the Lashkar e Toiba, whose fingerprints are on the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament and the 2008 Mumbai bombings, will be far harder.
My sense is that a stepped-up campaign along the Afghan border will happen, after more violent acts by the TTP make it clear once again that political engagement is a mirage. But the public personification of the LeT, Hafiz Saeed has been untouchable, subject only to polite, temporary ‘detentions’ after big explosions in India.
Manmohan Singh is also constrained in his dealings with Pakistan in the run-up to national elections. Clashes along the Kashmir divide have prompted forty senior Indian diplomats and retired military officers to issue a joint statement in August demanding that he not conduct any business with Nawaz during the upcoming UN General Assembly session, and that New Delhi adopt a “proactive” approach to terrorism originating in Pakistan. Here are excerpts from their joint statement:
The Pakistan establishment has quite evidently concluded that India does not expect firm action against those perpetrating terrorism from its soil and that terrorism and dialogue can go hand in hand…
The government would be well advised not to rush into a dialogue with Pakistan on the assumption that the new PM of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif is ostensibly committed to improving ties with India…
The trend lines of Pakistan’s hostile acts, both through its organs of state and sponsored non-state actors … do not show signs of reversal under Pakistan’s new government…
In these circumstances, it is evident that the euphoria over the change in government and its initial statements [toward India] is misplaced…
A policy of appeasement has manifestly failed to deliver results…
It is time that policies are devised that will impose a cost on Pakistan for its export of terror to India, and thus change the cost-benefit calculus of these policies and actions. A proactive approach by India towards Pakistan must be the order of the day, and will yield us much better results than those generated by policies of appeasement.
At a press conference releasing this joint statement, India’s former Chief of Army Staff N.C. Vij declared, “Pakistan is a rational actor; they will not risk nuclear escalation. This nuclear bluff should be called by India.” According to press reports, General Vij added, “The answer is for India to raise the stakes.”
Manmohan Singh’s coalition government is not inclined to satisfy these grievances. The next Indian government might.