A new strategic triangle
Last Friday, on the eve of a meeting of the permanent members of the Security Council in Geneva, the Indians took another step away from the U.S., indicating that they would not send soldiers to Iraq even if the peacekeeping operation does receive an international mandate.
In recent days, newspaper cartoonists throughout the world have been heaping scorn on U.S. President George W. Bush for having gotten bogged down in the Iraqi quagmire. The largest newspaper in India, the Times of India, is apparently the most veteran, or at least the most persistent, of the scoffers. For the last two years, the newspaper has been publishing a daily cartoon under the title Dubyaman (a combination of Bush's nickname and Superman) that tries to depict him in a ridiculous light. Last week, it portrayed Bush as someone trying to pull a fast one: He tells the Indian Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, that he is willing to create thousands of jobs for Indians. When Vajpayee raises his eyebrows, Dubyaman responds: I will evacuate American forces from Iraq, and you can employ Indian soldiers there instead.
The question of whether to participate in the peacekeeping operations in Iraq is currently high on India's public agenda. Vajpayee, when he was asked in an interview with Haaretz last week about the possibility of sending forces to Iraq, responded that the decision would depend on India's interests and on the UN role in Iraq. That statement was made on the eve of a visit to India by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca. According to media reports, her visit was aimed at urging India to help extricate Dubya from the Iraqi morass. Previous American requests that India send 15,000 to 20,000 soldiers to Iraq have met with a standard response: Only under a broad UN mandate.
Last Friday, on the eve of a meeting of the permanent members of the Security Council in Geneva, the Indians took another step away from the U.S., indicating that they would not send soldiers to Iraq even if the peacekeeping operation does receive an international mandate. The official reason is that Indian forces are too busy protecting the country's domestic security and preventing terror attacks. But the truth is that Vajpayee - even if he would like to involve the Indian army in an international undertaking - simply cannot: A recent survey revealed that 87 percent of Indians oppose such a move. Over the next few months, there will be five local elections in India, and general elections will be held in 2004. Vajpayee understands that any Indian soldier wounded or killed in Iraq would immediately translate into lost votes.
There was a lot of talk in Delhi last week about the establishment of an Indian-American-Israeli strategic triangle. There were those who nicknamed it the "Axis of Virtue." The Indian debate over Iraq is only the most recent example of the limitations of such an axis. It joins India's reservations about American aid to Pakistan, Vajpayee's friendly relations with Iran - relations that he defined in the Haaretz interview as a factor for peace and stability - and also the disagreements between India and Israel over methods of fighting Palestinian terror and Yasser Arafat's status.
Nevertheless, it is doubtful that these disputes detract from the potential, or the influence, of a Delhi-Washington-Jerusalem triangle. Evidence for this assessment can be found in the words of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who on Saturday expressed deep concern over the emerging Indian-Israeli axis and once again called for a public debate in his own country on the possibility of establishing relations with Israel. Additional evidence can be found in the words of the 18 Arab ambassadors whom Delhi hastily convened on Friday to reassure them that the growing ties between India and Israel will not come at the expense of Delhi's relations with the Arab world. The ambassadors, according to the Indian Express, were not convinced.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's visit to India caused a fundamental revolution in India's foreign policy. After dozens of years of remaining aloof, Delhi came out of the closet and - publicly, in full view of the international community - presented its preferential relations with Israel. The Iraqi issue is a passing political-tactical episode in India. The Americans understand this. The disagreement with Israel over the Palestinian issue is no more than lip service to India's traditional pro-Arab policy. That, at least, is how the Arabs understand it. In the words of one of the ambassadors who attended the meeting in Delhi: "No matter what happens in Palestine, Israel-India relations will continue to grow."