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The Deathwish Division

June 27, 2003

The weeks and months leading up the war in Iraq were filled with intrigue. In most news reports and commentaries the global mudslinging and pettiness was broadly portrayed as a dispute between the United States and 'Old Europe,' and a bit more narrowly sometimes as a Franco-American feud. By the language of their opposing views, and their jockeying for favour with other nations, the global powers appeared to square off over control of an important natural resource. With George Bush and Jacques Chirac playing their roles to perfection, the stand-off was easily cast in such limited tones.

Theories of a new world order surrounded this story line. The French, we heard, advocate multilateralism in global affairs because it allows them to retain the appearance of international power, despite having lost it long ago. The Americans insist on a scheme of things more in line with today's international equations, thereby relegating past powers such as France to a lesser status. Inevitably, therefore, the two forces collided over Iraq; militarism on a global scale is no minor matter, and any world order that either side might imagine must make some reference to such violent conflicts.

But more than this, the disagreement suggested an insular interest as well -- both the United States and Europe ignored the possibility that any other nation might present a reasonable and alternate point of view. French 'multilateralism' was tactically different from American hegemony, but it was a convenient multilateralism, with France self-appointing herself its spokesman.

Victory or defeat in individual disputes between the controlling powers is usually a minor matter; what is important is the preservation of a global order advantageous to both. For all the grandstanding that preceded the war, President Bush has made nice with the continentals fairly quickly afterward. And the very European states that offered themselves as bulwarks against runaway American militarism have quickly turned their attention to carving up Iraq.

But some issues are larger than even the great powers. Despite the rediscovered camaraderie across the Atlantic, the continuing costs of policing the country are unacceptable to First World populations. The daily deaths of soldiers reduced to peacekeeping duties is threatening to equal the casualty figures from the war itself; the need to replace American troops on the ground with other forces is compelling. And all eyes now look to the subcontinent to cough up the troops for this Deathwish Division.

For a nationalistic Indian government, this ought to be embarrassing, but we're past all that. A war, conceived and executed without the slightest nod to New Delhi, is now being sought to be sewn up with the usual expendable troops from the lesser nations. To belong in such robust company as Italy, Spain, Ukraine, and Turkey is some feather in the foreign policy cap. The usual suspects in the security analysis cabal are falling over each other to explain to us why Indian troops must join hands with the Americans in the sands of Mesopotamia. Even their parroting of the US ambassador is shameful -- '... has said that a negative decision by India will not affect Indo-US relationship.'

Really? Then why refer to the relationship in those terms? Behind the diplomatic facade, the prime minister must know fully well what Washington means. Commit troops, or else.

The sensible recourse is to decline. The United States' war against the Middle Eastern people is not going well. Even aside from the daily casualties the Americans are taking, the larger task of bringing administrative order to Iraq, and more importantly vesting authority for such order with the Iraqi people themselves, has crumbled upon its imperial contradictions. The planned Iraqi assembly of representative groups has been shelved, and the best replacement found for that stated goal is a coterie that commands neither the respect nor the trust of the Iraqis. A few body bags a week seems par for the course for the foreseeable future.

The question for India is fairly limited -- are we willing to put Indian soldiers in some of those bags?

The advocates of 'constructive engagement' would seem comic, if not for the obvious tragedy their opinions will visit on our troops. This constructive engagement of Washington is limited to the pitiful mind games that we have endured for decades. First, we must make sure the dictator next door doesn't cozy up to the United States very much, and the way to ensure that is to pre-empt him by our own subservience. Second, we must maintain the great pride of flying our own flag and serving under own command, completely forgetting that these self-referential term of authority were totally absent before the war. It will come as little consolation to dying soldiers that our flag and our command didn't merit even an askance glance. Gambia did better than that.

Worse even than being ignored during consultations before the war, Indian troops could become the reason for other wars in the future. America's fighting-ready force is hugely over-deployed in the Iraq theatre, and unless these troops are removed and redeployed elsewhere, the warmongers in Washington cannot execute any more of their imperial plans. Their threatening noises against Iran, Syria, and the North Koreans must now yield to the reality of a tied-down force. But once substitutes for troops in Iraq are found, their pet wars can proceed once more. Will Washington provide assurance to India, or any other nation, that American forces withdrawn from Iraq will not be committed to a new conflict? Not a chance.

Then there is always the 'trade angle.' Systematically raped in every global trading forum, we should be ashamed to make any reference to this anymore. But incredibly, we still imagine that carrots of trading opportunity will appear magically from Washington once we have firmly established our 'ally' status. Meanwhile, in the General Agreement on Trade in Services, the United States is crafting language to tell our local panchayats why they cannot regulate their environment in the tiniest villages. And our agriculture emissaries are about to be hauled to Sacramento to be lectured on the glory of genetically engineered crops, notwithstanding the fact that they will devastate Indian agriculture even further.

Indian governments have long since stopped expecting the world to take us seriously; instead we have repeatedly imagined that we can endear ourselves to the right powers through various minute moves, and never paused to realise how petty this may appear to the powers themselves. We celebrate 'face-time' with the American president who drops in unexpectedly on our visiting Cabinet members, and we note the French president's personal welcome for our prime minister at global get-togethers. But to what avail are these gestures? Could it be that world leaders have figured out that India's importance lies in such symbolism more than substance, and engage in it precisely for that reason?

Why would anyone take India seriously? The economic, military and other potential that we imagine is never employed to the advantage of India; it is always sought to be aligned with the advantages of others so that we may draw some meagre crumbs therefrom. Are we about to attain permanent membership in the UN Security Council? Is the madness of structural adjustments and forced privatisation of public welfare programs about to disappear? Hardly. Instead, over the heads of the administration in Washington, individual American states are threatening to pull the plug on our faraway call centres, where our people pretend to be American and British, so they may better 'serve' their clients.

Alliances are a poor second to independent strength and the pursuit of our own aspirations. The only states that have drawn the attention of other nations and kept it are the ones who have articulated explicit national interests, and insisted upon them. A national purpose that is not founded in the hopes of our own people can expect only to be placed feebly at par with other states of the same ilk. Any expectation of greatness we maintain must begin sometime; it cannot perpetually remain an aspiration for times ahead. To commit Indian lives to the machinations of empire in the hope that we may become allied with its privileges is silly, and a disgrace to the memory of our own colonial experience.

Make a list of public demands, Mr prime minister. The series of denials from Washington will help settle the question in your mind.

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Ashwin Mahesh

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