Polaris A Takshashila Institution Blog on International Politics and Security

On India’s Think Tanks

The government, armed services, media, and business community must shoulder some of the blame for the state of India’s think tanks.

Having worked for three public policy institutes in Washington and closely with half a dozen more, and having interacted in some capacity with almost every Indian strategic think tank, I have some strong views on their development and future. So I was naturally intrigued by the results of the latest annual Global Go To Think Tank Index produced by the University of Pennsylvania (in full disclosure, I contributed to last year’s survey). Unlike  previous editions, this year’s index received some attention in India, with the media registering that no Indian think tank featured in the world’s top 30. Jason Miks, editor of the online publication The Diplomat, also wrote a post on the subject:

At their best, think tanks can be a hotbed of ideas for government to draw upon, and if India has aspirations toward looking past its neighborhood and stepping up on the global stage it will need to draw upon the vigorous exchange and debate of ideas and policy proposals that such research centers can offer. And yet clearly, in the eyes of their peers, Indian think tanks lack the rigor and influence of a Germany, Canada or indeed Kenya, at least according to the latest list.

I’m going to quote here at some length from one of our writers on this issue from a couple of years back:

“Apart from (the) persistence of endemic poverty and poor infrastructure, India faces other critical challenges in its search for great power status: its acute shortage of critical human capital. At one level, the country can justifiably claim that it has some institutions of higher education which can compete with their peers on a global basis. But these institutions are mostly confined to the realms of science, engineering and management and despite the existence of these centers of excellence, mediocrity is the hallmark of many of India’s other educational institutions.

“For example, with the possible exception of the discipline of economics, India lags woefully behind in the other social sciences such as sociology, anthropology and political science. Few, if any, significant contributions to these fields of intellectual endeavor have emerged from India in recent decades. Most scholarship in these areas is either derivative, or worse, still mostly descriptive and hortatory.”

It’s the kind of damning indictment I’ve come to expect from those engaged in the China vs India debate that rages on our site and elsewhere. And yet these words were written by one of our Indian Decade bloggers, Sumit Ganguly.

And he’s right. When we’re sourcing material for the site, too often we find Indian think tank analyses littered with basic errors, unsubstantiated claims or rehashings of long debunked theories (Flashpoints contributor James Holmes is just one of many to have expressed frustration at how a likely non-event involving the Chinese and Indian navies last summer is still treated as fact in Indian media and policy circles).

It goes without saying that India has an enormous amount to offer the international community. But there’s no excuse for its absence on a list like this. [The Diplomat]

I want to first be clear that the results of the University of Pennsylvania report are not as damning an indictment as they may appear, because the methodology used to compile the rankings is unscientific and deeply flawed. The study is based on the opinions of select experts, and as such, there are enormous fluctuations in the rankings each year. Factors such as operating budgets, number of scholars, number of citations, and social media metrics are not used, even though these are all important and quantifiable factors that speak to the quality and influence of public policy institutions. In past editions of the survey, India’s premier defence think tank IDSA has – for example – been ranked rather high among Asian think tanks, and there is no clear explanation as to why its rating has deteriorated over time. Another example: note that the rankings for regional think tanks do not correspond to  the overall rankings at all, which speaks to some of the methodological shortcomings of this survey. So I would not put too much stock into the University of Pennsylvania study as evidence, particularly in comparing Indian institutions in quality or influence to those of other Asian countries and the wider developing world.

That said, this represents a valuable opportunity to discuss why India – despite having more think tanks than any country other than China and the United States, and a culture of debate and openness – still lags in this realm. The quality of Indian academia, that Professor Ganguly focuses upon, is a real problem, and most think tank products are still largely descriptive – relying only on public source information of sometimes dubious quality – rather than comprehensive or analytical.  But that is only one factor. In fact, the blame for India’s sub-par think tanks lies in equal measure with India’s government, its media, and its business community.

The success of think tanks depends as much on the consumers of information as the producers. While the Indian government has made welcome efforts in recent years to reach out to think tanks, it is still incredibly limited in doing so. Serving diplomats, bureaucrats, and military officers are often unable or unwilling to make presentations, limited by their own capacity constraints, their own research abilities, the possible  political consequences, and strict limits to their jurisdictions. When IDSA was first formed, serving military officers were banned from coming into contact with it. That policy has since been remedied, but the culture has not entirely dissipated. By contrast, serving military officers in the United States interact regularly with most security think tanks, making presentations, contracting out research, and bringing in scholars as external sounding boards. Think tanks, for example, played a vital role in developing the surge strategy in Iraq. In Europe, the model is different, but even then, think tanks with strong party affiliations provide mechanisms for aspiring political leaders to hone their skills and expertise. India’s government and military – in other words – must be more open and receptive, and far more knowledgeable about how to use think tanks to advance their objectives if they are to succeed. Recent interviews I conducted with officials at India’s Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi suggest that many Indian diplomats are completely unaware of the role and potential value of think tanks.

Secondly, the Indian media has not yet produced a public debate in India that clamors for greater information and insight on international and security affairs. In a media environment dominated by political theatre, Bollywood gossip, cricket scores, and corporate quarterly returns, there is little appetite for world or defence news, which is often sidelined in favour of reporting that generates higher ratings or readership. Consequently, scholars with expertise and quality research on important but niche topics – when it is produced – rarely receive the attention they deserve. For example, India, by virtue of its own nuclear program, has produced a very capable and knowledgeable cohort of experts on nuclear strategy and non-proliferation, of higher quality than almost anywhere else in the world. But their views never received adequate attention, particularly outside of India. The media has to take seriously its job of informing its readers or viewers if think tanks are to become more effective and have a greater impact.

Third, what is rarely understood and appreciated is that the world of think tanks, like any other industry, is driven by funding. Brookings and Carnegie were established only by the generous donations of industrial oligarchs with a keen interest in shaping public policy. Even today, both institutions receive millions of dollars in annual donations from the American corporate sector, as do most other leading American think tanks. The corporations receive tax benefits by donating to registered non-profits, and the think tanks are generally transparent about the sources of their funding and make available any research products to the wider public rather than to their sponsor alone for any competitive advantage. India’s newly rich business community has yet to make that leap in understanding the value of think tanks. From their standpoint, there are few financial incentives and the returns are often intangible. Most Indian think tanks are, consequently, chronically underfunded and under-resourced. If India is to have world-class think tanks, the incentives must be made clear to business leaders, and they must fill the funding breach. India is in this regard unlike China, which due to the role of the state, has think tanks that are primarily state-affiliated and -funded.

None of this is meant to excuse the overall quality of think tanks in India. Given the level of existing expertise, the English language faculty of its scholars, and the openness of Indian society, India’s think tanks should be playing a much greater role both nationally and internationally. The absence of analytical rigour and healthy institutional competition is often shocking. Domain expertise in many realms is lacking: I am often hard-pressed to come up with any leading Indian experts on important issues as diverse as the Chinese economy, Latin America, international human rights, defence budgeting, and drug trafficking. Even in areas where India boasts considerable domain expertise, such as Afghanistan, non-proliferation, or U.S.-India relations, the bench is incredibly thin. That said, the problems afflicting India’s think tanks are most certainly wider and deeper than one is often made to believe.

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Indian Foreign Policy for Dummies

11.28.2011 · Posted in Humour, Indian foreign policy

So, you’re an aspiring expert on Indian foreign policy affiliated with a media outlet, think tank, university, foreign government, or consultancy. Or perhaps you have to write a paper or book section on the subject, but haven’t had time to do the necessary research. Don’t panic. Below (with due credit to European blog Kosmopolito for providing inspiration) are a few quick and easy rules to keep in mind when writing on Indian foreign policy—basically, everything you need to become a leading expert on the subject. Now, just sit back and wait for that call from Foreign Affairs or al-Jazeera.

Tip #1. Attribution is overrated. There is no need to cite or quote real, serving government officials, the ones actually responsible for setting and enacting Indian foreign policy. Don’t bother calling them or even finding out their names. Retired ambassadors, military leaders, civil servants, scientists, or spies are sufficient—and generally, the longer retired, the better. Opposition MPs, independent think tanks, and Indian media sources can also be used to corroborate your reflection of an official Indian position. Feel free to refer to any sources you use as “authorities” (or, better yet, “leading authorities”), “unnamed officials,” “India,” “New Delhi,” “South Block” (which conveniently encompasses the PMO, MEA, and MOD, so that none of them can make credible denials), or simply “sources”.

Tip #2. So is authority. For up-to-the-minute insight on Indian foreign policy, you can never go wrong by citing Kautilya, Lord Curzon, Jawaharlal Nehru, General Sundarji, or George Tanham. Just about anything can be framed as Kautilyan, Curzonian, or Nehruvian, and using those big words also sounds impressive.  Nuance, too, is overrated. There’s no reason to read their entire books or speeches (just follow them on Twitter or Facebook). If it must be someone living – and this may or may not be an important consideration if you work for a television channel or the New York Times op-ed page – try leading authorities Ramachandra Guha, Tom Friedman, Amitav Ghosh, William Dalrymple, Pankaj Mishra, or Julian Assange.

Tip #3. Buzzwords are your friends. If India acts in any way against the United States, the West, or Israel – or cooperates at all with China, Russia, or Iran – describe its position as “non-alignment” or “strategic autonomy”.  If India appears to rebuff China, Russia, or Iran, or cooperate in any way with the United States and the West, label it a “U.S. ally” or say it is compromising its “independent foreign policy”. If India does not respond sufficiently to an action by a smaller country, call it “spineless” or “reactive.” If it does respond in any way, shape or form, describe it as “aggressive” or “nationalistic”, or reference its “hegemonic ambitions”.  Sprinkle your article with the words “grand strategy” and “sovereignty” – and make mysterious allusions to chess or “The Great Game” – and you’ll sound just like a seasoned professional.

Tip #4. So are scapegoats. There is absolutely no reason to report – let alone detail – any foreign policy successes. However, any and all failures necessitate immediate condemnation and self-flagellation, and can be attributed, directly or indirectly, to bureaucrats,  bureaucracy, corruption, red tape, opacity, transparency, electoral politics, coalition politics, dynastic politics, cadre politics, socialism, nationalism, liberalization, protectionism, Narendra Modi, Lalit Modi, or nuclear weapons. There is certainly no need to acknowledge – let alone address – any apparent contradictions.

Tip #5. The Golden Rule for foreign correspondents: Any time India and Pakistan are mentioned in the same article, the writer must state that they are nuclear-armed neighbors who—having been torn apart during a bloody Partition into “Hindu” India and “Muslim” Pakistan—have fought three (or is it four?) wars against each other, two (or is it three?) over the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Tip #6. Remember: you can never disprove a negative.  If you don’t have a clue what is going on, just write that there is an absence of Indian strategic thinking. Or simply state that India doesn’t have a foreign policy.

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India’s Middle East Muddle? Not So Fast.

08.27.2011 · Posted in Indian foreign policy, Libya

Is Indian foreign policy non-aligned, absent, anti-American or inflexible? Or is just too damned cautious?

In the context of the endgame in Libya—where it appears to be only a matter of time before Muammar Gaddafi falls—I engaged in a spirited, if somewhat brief, discussion on Twitter with several other commentators about India’s Middle East/West Asian policy. I had previously criticised India’s decision to abstain from voting in favour of the UN Security Council resolution sanctioning the Libyan intervention, but I disagreed with the others’ explanations for India’s actions in the Middle East—or lack thereof. They made a series of inter-related criticisms, all of them legitimate. But the reality is a lot more complex; more often than not, reductive assertions are exaggerations and caricatures that obscure some important truths about India’s engagement with the rest of the world. This is not to wholly dispute their arguments, or contest any criticism of Indian foreign policy whatsoever. I only mean to add a bit of nuance that is not always communicable on a medium such as Twitter.

To a considerable extent, India suffers from an absence of strategic thinking.

This is a popular argument, one that has been made for decades. It is certainly true that India lacks many of the institutions that enable or facilitate the formulation and execution of long-term strategies: its policy planning units are virtually non-existent, its Ministry of Defence conducts almost no policy at all, etc. Nonetheless, the boldness of several key decisions in recent years—whether to engage Pakistan at various junctures, conduct a nuclear agreement with the United States, or test nuclear weapons—should lead to at least some questioning of this popular truism. Even in the Middle East, relations with Israel, Iran and the Gulf have had to be managed, not passively but proactively, given—among other things—India’s defence requirements, its activities in Afghanistan, and its energy imports. Although belated, India’s outreach to Israel was nothing if not a strategic decision, as were the calls to cooperate with Iran on Afghanistan and to reboot relations with Saudi Arabia over the past few years.

India is comfortable with the status quo, and ill-equipped to deal with change.

This is a fair criticism, and one that I often make. But I have yet to see countries that adjust readily to change. The United States, with vastly superior foreign policy institutions, has yet to completely shed its Cold War views, and these have often been reflected in its post-Cold War policies towards China (engagement), Russia (containment), Pakistan (support), and India (sanctions). Even in the Middle East, to which Washington devotes considerable energies, it was completely caught off guard by the Arab Spring, resulting in a number of missteps. Despite the aura of strategy associated with Beijing, China too has been slow to adapt to changes in South Asia (both in Pakistan and India, but also in Sri Lanka with the sudden end of the civil war there) and even in its own region, which might explain its premature assertiveness. India, by contrast, benefits to some degree from less rigid institutions and few legal barriers: it’s jugaad at it’s best, and worst. Can India improve the flexibility of its foreign policy? Certainly. But is it as badly off as so many believe? Possibly not.

India has a deep commitment to non-alignment.

I consider this a facile explanation for India’s unwillingness to wholly embrace the United States as a partner, but it is not without basis. Debates still revolve around India’s commitment to the principle of non-alignment, but they have altered. If one appreciates the extent to which India wants to be unfettered by formal partnerships that it is willing to play off powers against one another, falling back on “non-alignment” as a shorthand for foreign policy flexibility makes some sense. Again, specific examples in recent years come to mind. India found common cause with China, Russia, Brazil and South Africa on climate change negotiations, but has also improved its bilateral defense relationship not just with the United States, but many of its East Asian allies and partners (such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Singapore). These were not lightly-made decisions, nor are they passive or unidirectional. The language of non-alignment ought to be abandoned, if nothing else than to distinguish it from India’s desire for foreign policy flexibility befitting a major power. But in practice, India has already moved far beyond it.

Its Middle East policy is reflexively anti-American.

I do believe this is an unfair assessment. As mentioned earlier, India is motivated by several factors in its dealings with the Middle East: defence, energy, strategic considerations, not to mention a large Indian diaspora and (often exaggerated) concerns pertaining to domestic politics. For these reasons, maintaining a modicum of good relations with Iran, the Gulf and Israel—and avoiding having to make difficult choices that might jeopardize any of these relations—is a significant priority. Such a policy, particularly as it relates to Iran, might upset Washington, and while it is a complicating factor, it has not yet resulted in a decisive setback for U.S.-India relations. The U.S. also maintains a balancing act in continuing to preserve friendly ties with China and Pakistan, but it would be ridiculous to construe that as a reflexively anti-Indian regional policy.

I do want to end on a critical note. India may not always be a supine actor or blind to new realities. Its strategic community has progressed a long way from deep-seated anti-Americanism and the worship of non-alignment. But it has fallen short on many fronts. India often fails to articulate desired end states to itself, let alone other actors, often with detrimental consequences. Its foreign policy formulation remains shrouded in secrecy, often unnecessarily. There is an absence of area-specific expertise or mechanisms for contingency planning. Perhaps most importantly, its foreign policy practitioners—from the political leadership down—remain far too cautious in making certain decisions of consequence, Libya being but one recent example. This is true more in the multilateral realm, in which India cuts an ungainly figure, than in its bilateral dealings, where India has been considerably more dexterous. All the same, it’s perhaps time to move debates beyond blanket criticism of Indian foreign policy as some sort of dinosaur: unimaginative, reactive,  stubborn and dull.

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It Happened One Night (II)

There’s more evidence to support my claims that Nicholas Schmidle’s sins were not at all uncommon, and less to show that Indian intelligence agencies are up to no good in Afghanistan, Iran and Balochistan.

Dr. Fair graciously responded to my previous blog post: ”FP’s Roundtable didn’t offer the luxury of elaborating on Zahedan. I did subsequently. AND loathed wikileaks backed me up!”

I replied: “Thanks. If you can send me links, I’ll gladly post a correction. My overall argument still stands, though.”

Dr. Fair: “My claims re[garding] India in B[alochi]stan, Iran, A[fghani]stan also stand. Western dip[lomat]s [are] FINALLY acknowledging this.”

She then provided two links to support her case, both articles by her. The first was to the Washington Quarterly article on India-Iran relations that I had already critiqued. The second was to an article in the same publication on India’s end game in Afghanistan, which I had read upon its release earlier this year. The key passage in the latter article, I believe, supports my points and I’ll reproduce it here in full:

[S]ome analysts interviewed by this author in the United States, the United Kingdom, Afghanistan, and Pakistan believe that India is engaging in intelligence operations against Pakistan from Afghanistan as well as Iran. UN officials told this author in Kabul in August 2009 that the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s domestic intelligence organization, is running weapons to Baloch insurgents in Pakistan on behalf of India. British analysts have also conceded to this author that they too have inferential evidence that India’s involvement in Afghanistan is not entirely benign. Pakistan believes that Afghanistan is a willing partner in India’s purportedly anti-Pakistan designs. For instance, Afghanistan has long harbored Baloch rebels. According to information made available through WikiLeaks, President Karzai admitted in January 2007 to sheltering more than 200 Baloch nationalists and their families who had fled Pakistan. However, Karzai denied that India is helping them—a claim Pakistan rejects.

The information Dr. Fair uses about Indian intelligence activities is second hand. The implication that Afghanistan was supporting Baloch separatists at India’s behest is inferred, as is the “inferential evidence” provided by British analysts. Why Karzai would admit sheltering Baloch nationalists, but deny India’s involvement is also left unexplained. The subsequent paragraph elaborates upon Pakistani claims. And then the kicker:

While these allegations are nearly impossible to verify, they should not simply be ruled out for the sake of convenience or deference to the burgeoning U.S. —Indian strategic relationship. For one thing, the United States intelligence community does not collect on these activities and thus is not in a position to empirically adjudicate the merit, or lack thereof, of Islamabad’s claims. Based on this author’s fieldwork in Iran (where India has a consulate in Zahidan, which borders Pakistan’s restive Balochistan province), Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, anecdotal evidence suggests that although Pakistan’s most sweeping claims are ill-founded, Indian claims to complete innocence are also unlikely to be true. The United States is simply ill-served to discredit Pakistan’s claims in the absence of intelligence to shed light on the issue. In fact, not collecting intelligence on these claims provides further grist for Pakistan’s anti-American mill, conveying disregard for Pakistan’s legitimate security interests. While conceding the possibility that some of Islamabad’s claims are valid, it is also important to remind Pakistan’s leadership that the scale of India’s activities against Pakistan pale in comparison to Pakistan’s sponsored activities in and against India.

The first-hand “anecdotal evidence” is not detailed by Dr. Fair in this article, nor is there a footnote. In sum, Dr. Fair bases her claims of Indian clandestine activity in Afghanistan, Iran and Balochistan almost solely on second-hand anonymous accounts, not entirely free of bias, and argues that even the absence of firm evidence is not indicative of a lack of meaningful Indian support for Baloch separatists. Again, I want to reiterate that this is not an uncommon practice. I have published entire articles based on unnamed sources, but I do try to ascertain their reliability and assess their statements against conflicting points of view. My central point is that what Dr. Fair does here is not all that different from what Schmidle did with his New Yorker report.

Although she did invoke WikiLeaks, Dr. Fair did not provide any links to cables detailing Indian involvement in Balochistan that supported her claims. I did a preliminary search of the vast WikiLeaks archives that revealed nothing. A more detailed search brought up only two documents. The first records a meeting between Secretary of State Clinton and Foreign Minister Krishna, in which Clinton “expressed appreciation with India’s assistance in Afghanistan and said the best way to dispel allegations about India’s possible role in Baluchistan would be to address them directly with Qureshi.” A second cable makes only a solitary mention of President Zardari claiming “he knew Indian intelligence was operating in Balochistan, and it had to stop.” Neither passes for credible evidence of Indian intelligence activities there, the first because neither the U.S. nor India appears to lend them credibility, the second because Zardari is, in this case, an unreliable and biased source.  The WikiLeaks cache is vast, and it is quite likely that more substantive evidence of Indian activity is available. If so, I have yet to see it.

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It Happened One Night

08.04.2011 · Posted in Media, Pakistan, U.S. Military

Criticism of The New Yorker for obscuring the sources for its report on the bin Laden killing is not reason enough to doubt its accuracy.

I have never met Nicholas Schmidle, who wrote this gripping—if embellished—account in The New Yorker of  the May 2 raid on Abbottabad that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden. Over the years, I have read his dispatches from Pakistan, and I believe we have several mutual acquaintances. I do, however, know Dr. Christine Fair, having first met her about five years ago in Washington, and subsequently at numerous South Asia-related seminars. I requested that she write an article—which was a very good one, in fact—on Pakistan. And although I never studied under her, she was a faculty member in my graduate school program. So it was with some interest that I read her vicious take-down of Schmidle’s reporting.

Fair’s main critique is spot on. Schmidle never interviewed the Navy SEALS who conducted the raid, but his New Yorker article leaves the reader with the strong impression that he did. I, too, was surprised upon discovering this, and began to consider the article in a somewhat different light. Schmidle—or his editors—should have been up front about this aspect of his reporting, and the fact that they deceived readers through such a deliberate omission reflects poorly on both the publication and Schmidle himself. However, there is nothing—yet—to indicate that Schmidle’s narrative, even if dramatized, is in any way inaccurate. When first-hand sources are not available, second-hand sources must often suffice.

Dr. Fair’s criticism, however, extends much farther than this important omission. She cites a 2008 report by Schmidle, in which he claimed to understand a conversation between a group of people, of whom “most” spoke Pashto, a language Schmidle does not comprehend. This detail is used to cast doubts on Schmidle’s credibility as a journalist. But perhaps some of those he observed were speaking Urdu. Or perhaps he had an interpreter whom he failed to mention, a more serious omission, but not an uncommon one for foreign journalists. Bottom line: he could be a shoddy reporter for all I know—I have certainly been less than impressed by some of his stories—but this minor detail alone is not enough for me to question the credibility of his entire article. So far, Jayson Blair he ain’t.

In Dr. Fair’s view, though, the veracity of Schmidle’s reporting is particularly important because larger issues are at stake. His credibility (or, rather, lack thereof) undermines the credibility of the events that transpired on May 2, which, as Dr. Fair points out, many Muslims doubt. She also notes that Schmidle’s father is a senior U.S. military officer, and implies that the very fact that the younger Schmidle authored the report might point to his being part of a disinformation campaign.  And she criticizes his mentioning the detail that the SEAL who shot bin Laden said “For God and country” believing this statement could be misread in Pakistan and perpetuate the sense of a war against Islam. As an agnostic Hindu, I would say that the statement alone does not necessarily imply a Christian-Muslim civilizational clash. Muslims too believe in a capital-G god, and many religious Muslims despise bin Laden and the corrupt strain of Islam he stood for. If true, should the detail have been obscured by a journalist because of the sensitivities of a possible second-hand audience? That, I think, would have amounted to shoddy journalism. As Fair herself notes: “Journalists have an important function: informing our publics.” True. Even when sometimes the details might have unpredictable consequences.

At no point is Fair’s criticism persuasive about the inaccuracy of Schmidle’s report. Certainly, he should have been more transparent about his sources. But her relatively minor grouse regarding a prior article and his father’s role in the military hierarchy are not at all convincing (his father was, after all, not involved in the raid, which might have pointed to a conflict of interest). Regarding her other two criticisms, it is in fact Fair who inadvertently fans the flames of conspiracy theories about what did or did not occur, and it is she who suggests that narrative details should have been suppressed in a breach of journalistic integrity.

Again, I don’t know Schmidle and am no fan of his. It could turn out, with the passage of time, that his report is inaccurate and possibly even fabricated, and if that is the case we can reassess his credibility. But Fair’s criticism, beyond the deliberate obfuscation of his sources, is on very weak ground.  Although she claimed, in subsequent conversations on Twitter, that her criticism of Schmidle was purely professional and not at all personal, her characterization of Schmidle in one tweet, ”BIlkul chut hai woh.” (Sic)—a phrase that even Schmidle, with his allegedly sub-par Urdu, should comprehend—might suggest otherwise.

Policy wonks are not all that unlike journalists. We too try to piece together accurate information from data that is often incomplete, based on our own travel, interviews, archival research, secondary readings or surveys. We too make mistakes. Articles I have published based on what I deemed the most accurate information available have, in time, turned out to be incomplete, misleading or inaccurate, and I have felt it my duty to try to correct these details in subsequent writing. But since we are trying to guide policy, it is expected that—unlike journalists—we take value-laden positions on desirable end-states, making it impossible to avoid judgment. Dr. Fair, while well-known in academic and policy circles for her fierce adherence to proper research methodology, has also been known to fall prey to inaccurate information, often with important consequences.  I cannot critique her work on Afghanistan and Pakistan, countries about which I claim minimal knowledge and with which I have little experience, but I am on firmer ground in assessing her work on India. At least three cases stand out.

In a March 2009 online roundtable on Pakistan, hosted on Foreign Affairs‘ web site, Dr. Fair wrote: “Having visited the Indian mission in Zahedan, Iran, I can assure you they are not issuing visas as the main activity! Moreover, India has run operations from its mission in Mazar (through which it supported the Northern Alliance) and is likely doing so from the other consulates it has reopened in Jalalabad and Qandahar along the border. Indian officials have told me privately that they are pumping money into Baluchistan.” These were serious allegations, and were disputed by another roundtable participant, Ashley Tellis: “I am not sure I buy Christine’s analysis of Indian activities in Pakistan’s west: this is a subject I followed very closely when I was in government, and suffice it to say, there is less there than meets the eye. That was certainly true for Afghanistan. Convincing Pakistanis of this, however, is a different story.” Fair did not detail when she was in Zahedan, what it was the Indian consulate was doing, when India supported the Northern Alliance from Mazar (i.e. before or after the initial expulsion of the Taliban in 2001-2002), and which officials told her about Indian activities in Balochistan. She surmised, based on India’s alleged activities in Mazar, that its consulates were doing the same in Jalalabad and Kandahar.  Her lack of detail meant that the worst was implied. Sure enough, the Pakistani press went to town over her statement, as it was a seemingly neutral and expert confirmation of Pakistani claims about its insecurities vis-a-vis India. Such claims have been used to justify Pakistan’s clandestine activities against India as retaliatory. Later, when pressed on the sources for her claims in an interview, Dr. Fair said: “I have never gone to any lengths to look at that issue and I do not know anyone who has a line of credible information.” Perhaps, then, she could have been more transparent about this at the outset.

A second example was as the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai were raging. Very little credible information was then available in the public domain about the perpetrators and planners of the attacks. In an interview with the New York Times, however, Dr. Fair, while at first careful to say there was little evidence about the perpetrators, concluded: “Indians will have a strong incentive to link this to Al Qaeda…But this is a domestic issue. This is not India’s 9/11.” There have undoubtedly been attacks both before and after 26/11 linked to domestic terror groups, but her assertion was nonetheless a strong one, based on little credible information, and particularly insensitive given that the gunmen’s  rampage was still ongoing. As it turns out, the attacks were not domestic but planned in Pakistan and executed by Pakistanis. Lashkar-e-Taiba, rather than al Qaeda, was fingered. And many Indians do equate the events of 26/11 with 9/11. Okay. In all fairness, everyone—myself included—has made statements in public with relatively little thought, and short quotes in newspapers can easily obscure context. Academic arguments, by contrast, are generally more nuanced. That leads me to my third example.

In the Summer 2007 edition of The Washington Quarterly, Dr. Fair published an article on the India-Iran relationship. She argued that India-Iran relations had been deliberately underestimated by American proponents of the U.S.-India nuclear deal, and that relations had “much to do with India’s great power aspirations and New Delhi’s concomitant expansive agenda for Central Asia and beyond, within which energy is only one, albeit important, consideration.” This contradicted the U.S. government’s emphasis on the energy dimension of the relationship.  She supported her assertion of shared Indo-Iranian wariness about American unipolarity by quoting then Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s call for ”dialogue” to resolve Iran’s nuclear impasse, a statement in line with most of the international community at the time. On defense cooperation, she relayed Iran’s wish-list for arms sales, refitted equipment, and spare parts from India, but did not detail whether India had agreed to supply these (later in the article, she conceded “Even if the volume of hard military transfers is inconsequential at this point…”).  She made her claim about the Indian consulate in Zahedan being a bastion for Indian intelligence, saying it “affords New Delhi an enhanced ability to monitor Pakistan and even launch subconventional operations against Pakistan.” And she also brought up the prospect of greater civilian nuclear cooperation between India and Iran, based on a handful of questionable media reports. All of this—particularly in the absence of the broader context of Indian foreign policy (including its burgeoning relations with the United States and Israel)—served to exaggerate the proximity of Indo-Iranian relations at a particularly delicate juncture for enhancing ties between India and the United States.

None of these examples should be taken as reason to suspect Dr. Fair’s motives, or her academic credibility. Her reputation for research is formidable and well-deserved, and her writing immensely enjoyable. But I do think her criticism of the Schmidle report was unwarranted, disproportionate, and on weak grounds. A lot is indeed at stake, and getting facts right is paramount. Unless there are more compelling reasons to doubt Schmidle’s narrative, it should continue to be taken seriously. The examples of Dr. Fair’s work above, I believe, show that even the best of us can unwittingly obscure context and make basic reporting errors when writing about international security, an inherently fluid and uncertain field. I certainly have.


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My Presentation at the Atlantic Council

I participated in a panel discussion earlier today (Tuesday, July 26) at the Atlantic Council of the United States in Washington DC. Below is the full text of my remarks. During the discussion that followed the four presentations, I elaborated upon India’s position on U.S. intervention on Kashmir, on India’s presence in Afghanistan, and on the Cold Start doctrine, and also fielded questions on China’s potential role and the supposed ‘trust deficit’ between the two sides.

Thank you, Tom, and thanks to Shuja Nawaz, Shikha Bhatnagar, and the Atlantic Council for organizing this event and inviting me to participate.  I would like to begin with two caveats. First, nothing I say should be construed as the position of my employer. These are solely my personal views. Second, I want to clarify at the outset that, unlike others on this panel, I am not an expert on Pakistan. I will therefore limit my remarks, to the extent possible, to India-Pakistan relations and U.S. regional policy as seen from an Indian perspective.  I want to use my time to make a set of four interrelated points – or propositions – some of which Tom already alluded to, before addressing possible implications for U.S. policy.

My first proposition is simple: the general characterization in the United States of India-Pakistan relations – particularly India’s position – has ossified since the 1990s, even though both India and Indian foreign policy have altered radically in that same period. Mirror-imaging – the assumption that attitudes and actions are similar on both sides – is therefore a common fallacy. But India is no longer an insecure, autarkic state obsessing about zero-sum competition with Pakistan. Today, it is reluctant to intervene militarily in its neighboring states – witness Nepal, where Indian interests were directly under threat. It has little to gain from seizing Pakistani territory and nothing from its dismemberment. India’s leaders are fully aware that military aggression and conflict threatens the Indian growth story. Moreover, nuclearization has created strategic stability. There is more than $50bn in trade today between India and China, up from almost no trade in 1998, despite their outstanding boundary dispute. And after 2002, India’s leaders are fully conscious of the limitations of conventional military force in a nuclearized and globalized environment. India has not fully mobilized its military in almost a decade, despite terrorist attacks of greater severity than the 2001 parliament attack, including many with clear links to elements operating in Pakistan. In fact, we can largely attribute the last decade’s peace in the region – by which I mean an absence of limited inter-state war - to this transformation in Indian behavior. I am not making a case for Indian moral superiority. Its history is littered with bad intentions. But I do want to underscore that India’s more benign and restrained behavior over the past decade stems from self-interests the prioritize stability over instability.

My second proposition is that, many aspects of India-Pakistan confrontation and competition – particularly the Kashmir dispute – are symptoms rather than root causes. If Kashmir were to be resolved tomorrow, there is no guarantee that other outstanding problems between the two countries will dissipate. Kashmir alone does not explain the nature of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, when foreigners were deliberately targeted, or Pakistani-supported terror attacks against Indian interests in Afghanistan, or al Qaeda’s presence in Pakistan, or nuclear relations with North Korea and Iran. Pakistan’s purported insecurities related to India’s economic growth and military modernization are not going to go away. Consequently periodic U.S. attempts at intervention or mediation are not just dangerous from India’s standpoint – and I can get into why that is in the Q&A – they are of little use to solving the region’s many security problems.

My third point is that a number of developments often associated with India-Pakistan competition – Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal, India’s military modernization, and Pakistan’s support for certain terrorist groups – have only loose, tenuous linkages to the India-Pakistan dynamic.  I already mentioned al Qaeda. As Bruce Riedel, among others, has suggested, the increase in Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile is arguably directed as much at Washington than at New Delhi. And many analyses of Indian arms acquisitions, particularly by Pakistanis, fail to account for China. In such cases it would do us well to think outside the narrow confines of India-Pakistan security competition.

My final point, flowing somewhat from my previous three, is that the ball is now in Pakistan’s court, as the region’s first-order problems lie within it, rather than between India and Pakistan. Unless Pakistan can begin to behave like a mature, responsible state – by which I mean a state accountable to its people and the international community – meaningful normalization between the two sides will be all but impossible. India today finds itself in much the same boat as Washington vis-à-vis Pakistan: broadly desirous of a unified, democratic, stable Pakistan at peace with itself and its neighbors, and no longer home to a terrorist infrastructure that compromises Indian, American, Afghan and, yes, even Pakistani interests. The difference, of course, is that India has a convenient history of animosity with Pakistan, and unlike Washington has almost no form of coercive leverage, whether economic or military.

But much like the U.S., India is confronted with multiple power centers, indecision and duplicity.  In other words, while Indian equities have changed, there is little indication that the same can be said for the other side of the Radcliffe Line. A state of permanent crisis with India supports the private interests of several key individuals and institutions in Pakistan. I refer, of course, to the security forces and its allies of convenience in the civilian government. Unless those interests alter – unless the constituencies for normalization in Pakistan permanently marginalize the constituencies of crisis – the current peace process has no hope of succeeding, and we would be foolish to expect any major gains. The official Pakistani reactions after the Osama bin Laden raid or the 2008 Mumbai attacks are particularly illustrative in this regard. Like many other incidents in recent years they were characterized by an absence of accountability, investigation, and cooperation. To extend an analogy made by Steve Cohen, anyone should be expected to help a neighbor whose house is on fire; but it is far more difficult if that neighbor is an arsonist.

So what can – and should – the United States do to target the root causes of regional tension? While Indians might be irritated, they are also broadly sympathetic to Washington’s limitations. One modest proposal is that the United States should consistently challenge – with the intention of completely reversing – certain pernicious national narratives in Pakistan. So far, the U.S. response has been piecemeal. For example, Pakistan is indeed a victim of terrorism, but that does not absolve it of harboring terrorist groups that target India or Afghanistan. Washington could also display a lower tolerance for media manipulation by the Pakistani security forces. It allows India and the United States to be unfairly blamed for a litany of problems, and deflects responsibility from the Pakistani leadership, and with it any sense of accountability. Washington could contest the Pakistani view that its activities are propelled by fears of Indian encirclement, Indian arms acquisitions, the U.S.-India nuclear deal, and Cold Start. Whatever insecurities they might cause Pakistan, they do not justify a state run by an army, Pakistani nuclear proliferation, or its harboring of terrorist groups. The activities or stature of Indian intelligence are not comparable to Pakistan’s, nor is India a revisionist power. So far, the failure to contest these narratives legitimizes them, thus perpetuating false expectations and bad behavior.

I’d like to end on a cautionary note. One striking trend of the past few years is that the frequently unkind and perhaps unfair Indian caricature of Pakistan – as a predatory and morally bankrupt state that is an incubator of transnational terrorism – is now shared by a much wider proportion of the international community, including many in the United States, Europe, and even Pakistan’s all-weather friend China. Pakistan would be on a much stronger footing in its dealings with India if it could prove the world wrong, rather than continue to play the victim. The task for pulling Pakistan back from the abyss falls not to Washington, or Beijing, or London or Riyadh, or even New Delhi through political concessions and unilateral engagement. That task ultimately falls to Pakistan itself.

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Perceptions, Reality, and U.S.-India Relations

If not even Americans believe their country is the world’s leading economic power today, how can India be expected to work on that assumption?

Scanning the vast amounts of Indian commentary in the aftermath of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit, the overall reaction appears to have been a…big…collective…yawn. It’s not as if nothing happened. Mrs. Clinton made a positive statement about wanting to see India take on a bigger role in the region (risking some minor heart palpitations in Islamabad).  Her sojourn down south to Chennai was a wise decision, and a welcome signal of the region’s positive development. And simply continuing regular high-level interactions between the U.S. and Indian governments was good, if only for further instilling habits of dialogue and familiarity between the two sides.

As Indrani Bagchi rightly points out, however, we can’t expect a major advance in U.S.-India relations before 2014. In Washington, political bandwidth is being taken up by domestic battles, as well as Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Iran, and the Arab Spring on the foreign policy front. With presidential elections scheduled for November 2012, there is not going to be any appetite for a major push on U.S.-India relations. In India, the diminished political capital of the UPA coalition means little can be expected before the next general elections. On the plus side, second presidential terms in the United States have traditionally seen greater attention paid to India, as under both Presidents Clinton and Bush, while Indian governments have on occasion made foreign policy breakthroughs from positions of political weakness. Nonetheless, the medium-term picture for bilateral U.S.-India relations looks uninspiring, if not bleak.

A continuing challenge in the interim is managing expectations, particularly in Washington. For many in the United States—including some favourably inclined towards India—New Delhi has simply not done enough to justify greater investment. They point to what, from their standpoint, are important setbacks, such as the nuclear liability legislation, India’s positions on global trade, its votes at the UN Security Council, the MMRCA shortlisting that excluded U.S. suppliers, and an absence of movement on reforms that would enhance U.S. market access and otherwise benefit American businesses.

This attitude is shortsighted, for it assumes two things. One, that the relationship is transactional, which in turn implies that India’s value for the United States is of a similar quality—although perhaps on a different scale—to other key relationships. Two, many (not least, Fareed ‘Rise of the Rest’ Zakaria) believe that India needs the United States as a partner more than the other way around.

But these assumptions overlook important changes to the international system, hastened by the financial crisis and recession in the United States. In 2005-07, it was possible to make the argument that India had no real alternative to the United States as its primary international partner, as it was widely perceived as the world’s preeminent economic power. After 2008—and certainly the past two years—that argument has become harder to make. If, as polls indicate, not even the American public believes their country is the world’s leading economic power today, how can India be expected to be persuaded by that argument? All of this might suggest that U.S. priorities should be at home, in line with Richard Haass’s call for a grand strategy of “restoration“.

Perhaps. But building up national power domestically does not a foreign policy doctrine make. Moreover, the United States is desperately short of friends in an increasingly multipolar world, at least friends who are large, rising powers with converging interests on first-order challenges, shared values, and the entire gamut of military, economic, and diplomatic tools at their disposal. For one reason or another, none of China, the European Union, Japan, or Russia makes the cut. If the United States wants a fruitful partnership with India, altering perceptions about its decline would certainly help. But that is no excuse for not investing more in a bilateral relationship that will render intangible benefits well in excess of two nuclear reactors or a paltry $10 billion in arms deals.

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America’s Divided Realists

07.10.2011 · Posted in IR Theory, U.S. Foreign Policy

The United States’ realist policymakers are today deeply split, adhering closely to other traditions of American foreign policy. So is American realism dead? Or simply dormant?

Given that the Takshashila Institution and its magazine Pragati publicly espouse—among other things—a foreign policy based on realism, I’ve spent much time over the past three years dwelling on what exactly that means in an Indian context. I refer, of course, not to the structural realism (or neo-realism) that remains the leading paradigm among scholars of international relations (if only just), but to the school of foreign policy practice from which it stems. Those who have documented intellectual trends in U.S. foreign policy—including Francis Fukuyama and Walter Russell Mead—have often described realism as one of four schools, the other three being Wilsonian liberalism (with its emphasis on institutions and values), neo-conservatism (which also stresses values but retains a healthy scepticism of international institutions), and the somewhat more isolationist strand of Jacksonian populism.

Although realists can claim at least partial credit for their contributions to United States’ victory in the Cold War, their role in the post-Cold War era in response to the events that shaped that period—from Rwanda, Kosovo and 9/11 to Iraq, Afghanistan and the rise of China—has been less evidently successful. Rather, realists themselves have been deeply divided as to how to address these and other threats to U.S. interests and values. In fact, it is possible to tease out three different strands among realists, each closely allied (perhaps not coincidentally) to one of the other three traditions of American foreign policy.

A first group of self-identified realists might include the poster-boys of Cold War-era realist statecraft, such as Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Brent Scowcroft. All of them have lately expressed a distaste for American unilateralism. On the question of China’s rise—perhaps a touchstone, given its position as a potential rival pole to the United States in the international system—all three have advocated, to varying degrees, some form of U.S. engagement over out-and-out balancing. Scowcroft, as National Security Advisor, advocated keeping links open with Beijing during the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. Kissinger supports greater engagement in his latest book On China. And Brzezinski has argued in favor of a U.S.-China duopoly, or “G-2“. All of this finds resonance in the Obama administration’s concept of “leading from behind” in a new multipolar world and is in accordance with the belief—often associated with liberal internationalism—that concessionary engagement might give potential adversaries a stake in the stability of the international system and acculturate them to shared norms and values.

A second group of self-proclaimed realists—in which I would place the likes of Stephen Walt and Andrew Bacevich—appear particularly influenced by what they see as unnecessary U.S. adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are also mindful of the United States’ limitations, particularly the weakening of its economy and the decrease in resources relative to other major states and emerging powers. Their position has consequently been one favoring U.S. disengagement from regions and countries deemed secondary to U.S. national security interests, or, to use their word, “restraint“. But the line between restraint or prudent disengagement and isolationism is blurry, and their arguments might easily find resonance and support among Tea Party activists and other products of the Jacksonian tradition.

The final group—perhaps exemplified by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice—consists of realists who might today be considered apostates. But they may in fact be the truest inheritors of their Cold War-era realist forbearers. In their view, American interests and values are today too closely intertwined for one to be advanced at the expense of the other. Thus maintaining a balance of power favourable to American interests, particularly in Asia, requires supporting fledgling liberal democracies and allying or partnering with more established ones. It should therefore be no surprise that efforts by the Bush administration to partner India were motivated as much by balance of power considerations as anything else. While merging realism and idealism remains conceptually clunky, this strand of realism remains difficult to distinguish from neoconservatism.

Amid this fractured response to new foreign policy challenges, there is little room for ‘traditional’ realists. And that should be no surprise. Neither unipolarity nor globalization, or even the absence of clear and credible threats, lends itself easily to realist foreign policy responses. Who is one to balance against in a unipolar system? How does one contain in a globalized world? Can sub-conventional conflict be easily deterred? The question, then, is whether American realism is, in effect, dead? Or is it simply dormant, awaiting circumstances that might restore its relevance?

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An Indian in Israel

06.29.2011 · Posted in Uncategorized

This summer, like the last, I am guilty of neglecting my blogging duties, instead spending several weeks traveling for both work and pleasure. Following a week-long maiden visit to Israel, I thought I would document a few thoughts, much as I did last year with China. In many respects (size, orientation, history) China and Israel are beyond compare. But like the Middle Kingdom, I found even a brief visit to Israel led to a much greater appreciation of the country’s contradictions. I left, in short, with more questions than answers. Without further ado, a few impressions:

1. Israel’s surprising diversity. For many of us, our perception of Israeli society is one dominated by European Jews or Ashkenazim, a result—perhaps—of well-documented post-War migration, Hollywood, and the Jewish diaspora. This has promoted a sense of kinship among promoters of Israel in the United States and Europe, but also lends racial overtones to criticism of the country and the conflicts it has been embroiled in with its neighbours. Yet one of the first things that strikes visitors to Israel is its immense ethnic variety; it’s a veritable rainbow nation. Not only does about 20 percent of the Israeli population consist of non-Jews (mostly Arabs), but less than half of Israeli Jews are, in fact, of European descent. Over 100,000 new immigrants are Jews from Ethiopia, and a surprising 80,000 (or 1% of the country’s population) are from India. Israel, in a proportional sense, is about as ‘Indian’ as the United States.

2. Conflicted Arabs. Several interactions with both Arabs and Israelis gave  hints of the complexities of being one of the 1.2 million Arabs who are also Israeli citizens. On the one hand, Arabs, in private, expressed satisfaction about being in Israel, rather than in Syria or Libya where brutal crackdowns continue. They acknowledged the benefits of residing in a country where freedom of speech, a representative government, a stable economy and social welfare were guaranteed. At the same time, they complained about being treated like second-class citizens, often by virtue of not having served in the military. This meant that jobs—including in the hi-tech sector—were often harder to attain. Some Jews also acknowledged a level of “de facto” discrimination against Arabs and believed that efforts should be made to ameliorate it. “We owe them full equality as a Jewish value,” one told me.

3. “Start-up Nation”. The world may still associate Israel with religious orthodoxy, internecine conflict and, perhaps, Jaffa oranges. But something remarkable is underway: Israel today boasts a booming hi-tech sector that puts Bangalore to shame. Companies like Intel and Deutsche Telekom have enormous presences in the country (it should really say “Israel Inside”, several interlocutors joked). I was unaware that the country had more companies listed on NASDAQ than any other, the United States and China excepted. HP now has 5700 employees in Israel, Google has two research centers, and Microsoft’s R&D for its future operating systems is now based there. And none of that includes the (literally) hundreds of little-known Israeli start-ups that have developed everything from electronic billing and DVD chips to jump drives and call center software. The Indian corporate sector may conduct business with Israel on defence, agriculture and pharmaceuticals, but there are many unexplored openings in the hi-tech sector waiting to be seized.

4. Just Don’t Call them “Settlements”. I was fortunate to visit one of the 150-odd Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and passed by many more. News footage and the very term “settlement” had conjured up images of ramshackle mobile homes or poorly-built concrete compounds, but these communities were more akin to wealthy American suburbs: million dollar homes, SUVs, manicured lawns, elementary schools and community centers. It’s easy to say that settlers should leave in the event of a permanent two-state solution, but it was much harder to imagine these lavish developments being completely bulldozed or abandoned.

5. Palestinian Grievances. While I didn’t manage to visit Gaza—only overlook it from a hillock a few kilometres away—I did manage to get to the Palestinian-administered West Bank. The brief visit was hardly enough to derive any firm opinions about the plight of the Palestinian people, but that coupled with conversations with Arabs, Israelis and foreigners seemed to suggest that their problems were primarily non-material (again, Gaza may be a completely different matter). This may be due at least partially to the peculiar relationship between Israel and the PLO—neither of which wants Hamas to come to power in the West Bank—and the relatively generous assistance provided the Palestinian Authority by the West. Although there are a lot of things the Palestinians of the West Bank may require from the international community, I left with the strong impression that more development aid was not one of them.

6. History? Or Mythology? Much like the Indians and Chinese, the folk history of Israelis and others in the region greatly inflates the antiquity and authenticity of their living past. Today’s old Jerusalem is primarily a medieval town. Much like China, several old sites have been thoroughly renovated over the years and in a few cases are entirely modern recreations. Biblical associations with physical locations for both Jews and Christians are often tenuous. Go much farther back than the Roman period—and certainly beyond the first millennium BCE—and the line between history and mythology becomes terribly blurred.

7. America’s Abandonment. A running theme among Israeli policy wonks was the end of American hegemony in the Middle East, a development naturally seen as negative from an Israeli standpoint. Israelis spoke of Washington as an unreliable ally (sounds familiar?) that had made a mess of the Middle East peace process through its erratic demands and inattentiveness. The Oslo peace accords, and its enduring legacy, also came under fire from several directions for diverse (and often contradictory) reasons.

8. The Arab Autumn? A second major theme among policy wonks was deep concern about the so-called Arab Spring. Developments in Egypt—in particular—were being viewed with considerable suspicion, and most Israelis believed that there was no certainty that the end result of these popular uprisings would be a stable and democratic Arab world. Religious populism in places such as Jordan, Syria, Libya, Turkey and Iran were repeatedly invoked as reasons to be pessimistic about the region’s future.

9. The Complexities of a Jewish Democracy. Identity remains a complex issue in Israel. On the one hand, Israelis are justifiably proud of their liberal democracy, and the accompanying freedom of speech and action,  the often colourful politics, and (generally) good governance. At the same time, they remain committed to the notion of Israel as a Jewish state. The fate of minorities is only one area where this apparent contradiction comes to the fore. Immigration policies, based as they are on religion, could eventually prove limiting. And Hebrew, which is mandatory for all new immigrants as well as all students through college, might limit the aspirations of young Israelis seeking to operate in an increasingly global environment. English-language classes are, however, offered in a growing number of graduate programs.

10. The Virtues of Military Service. One can’t help but be confronted with regular reminders about Israel’s mandatory military service. All men serve three years after high school, all women two. Officers and those in special units serve more, and men can be called upon to undergo training for a month each year until the age of 45. Israel’s is, consequently, a martial culture. But military service does a lot more than ensure security in a hostile region. Those with specific talents are able to hone valuable skills, such as in scientific research or analysis, through service in special units. One employer said he could tell more about the skills of potential job applicants from the IDF unit they served in than from a standard curriculum vitae. Military service also instills in Israeli society a palpable and infectious sense of camaraderie.

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And Then There Were Two

Thoughts on the MMRCA shortlist.

There has been a lot of surprise, and considerable anguish in Washington, Stockholm and, presumably, Moscow—as well as New Delhi—over the decision by the Ministry of Defence to shortlist the Dassault Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon in India’s $10+ billion medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) competition. The rejection of both American bids—by Boeing of its F-18, and by Lockheed Martin of its F-16—have surprised many who had expected the tender to go American, and thus further consolidate military-technological ties between the United States and India. The belief was that a defence acquisition on this scale would be a political decision, and that there was limited utility in India’s courting the favour—at this juncture—of Western Europe or Russia. Further, many saw a decision to buy American as a quid pro quo of sorts for Washington’s providing India an exception on international civilian nuclear commerce as part of the landmark nuclear agreement between the two countries (“a 123-for-126 trade-off” in the words of one foreign diplomat in Delhi). Certainly, the allure of the MMRCA deal helped many promoters of the U.S.-India relationship in Washington push harder for close ties.

So what happened? First, just as important as political considerations is the question of which aircraft is best suited for the purposes of the Indian air force. Rigourous technical trials were conducted in various climates: Bangalore, Jaisalmer and Leh. At the Leh trials in early 2010, four aircraft performed poorly, including – reportedly – the two American candidates, which were said to have had trouble operating at high altitudes at such low temperatures. In fact, the final short-list should not have been a surprise: Praveen Swami reported the Eurofighter’s front-runner status after trials late last year, and over three months ago, Indian newspapers confirmed that the Eurofighter had finished first and the Rafale second with the Gripen and F-18 rounding off the top four.

Second, the spectre of corruption—which looms large over the Indian defence acquisition process—proved a double-edged sword for U.S. suppliers. American manufacturers and the U.S. government were fully confident that the comparative transparency of their defense sales process would give them an edge over their Russian and European competitors, still reeling from the legacies of HDW, Gorshkov and Bofors.  However, the scandals raging in India related to the Commonwealth Games and the 2G spectrum auction also made it near impossible for the results of technical trials to be overruled by India’s political leaders on non-technical grounds.

Third, although the reliability of the United States as a supplier post-sales may have been an over-exaggerated concern, the United States was not seen as pliable enough on access to technology. European governments positioned themselves as far more accommodating of India’s desires to access high-technologies, and were more willing to tailor their bids to assuage Indian concerns.  With both the Eurofighter and the Rafale, the likelihood of India becoming a de facto partner in joint production and development may be far greater. Washington was also seen as overly stringent on end-use monitoring, and the Indian government had been previously criticised—perhaps unfairly—for compromising Indian interests on that front.

Finally, American ambiguity on India’s geopolitical concerns played a role. This had at least two dimensions to it. The first was the notion perpetuated by Washington, especially by the current administration, of continued American relative decline. Despite buoyancy in many quarters in New Delhi regarding the United States’ future as a strong partner, the prevailing impression—probably incorrect—is that the United States is a losing investment over the long-term, even among those favourably disposed towards the United States. Second, the general drift in relations since 2008 has only increased both countries’ resolve to drive harder bargains. This period of drift was initiated by the Obama administration’s early missteps on China and Afghanistan and has persisted despite the president’s visit to India last November as a consequence of political developments in both capitals.

Moving forward: a few further considerations. First, this decision will undoubtedly have a blow back effect in Washington, providing ammunition to the many sceptics of U.S.-India relations. Second, while the MMRCA may be a landmark deal, it is not the only one, and American suppliers have steadily encroached upon the fast-growing Indian defence market. In fact, it may lead to some soul-searching on the part of the U.S. government and U.S. industry as to what they could have done better. Finally, it is not over yet. Many forget that the Dassault Rafale was considered completely out of the competition only two years ago. Previous such tenders—including, most notably, a massive deal for 197 helicopters for the Indian army—have been unceremoniously scrapped; in that case, the favored Eurocopter bid was tarnished and the U.S. manufacturer Bell returned to the fray. The defence minister’s unusually public warning on the subject of corruption just days ago suggests concern as much as caution.

On a more optimistic note, we must remember that neither the Eurofighter nor the Rafale are bad planes. Both are advanced 4.5 generation aircraft that provide India access to top-of-the-line technology. Among the contenders, the Eurofighter in particular is high speed (capable, perhaps, of supercruise), designed for air-superiority, has excellent infra-red tracking capabilities, and adheres very closely to the original Indian request for proposals. Its high cost is certainly a concern, as are spare parts, but one welcome takeaway from the MMRCA process is that cost alone has not determined India’s choice in acquiring a major weapon platform, when all too often it had been the default determining factor.

Further reading:

  • For an excellent, and technically detailed, comparison of the six bids, see Ashley Tellis’ monograph Dogfight! especially page 77.
  • My colleague over at The Acorn makes a cogent case for why the decision should have favoured a U.S. supplier. As does Offstumped.
  • A piece - now a little old – by Adm. Arun Prakash on the subject.

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