The greatest menace to American foreign-policy success is impatience. Terribly intractable regions, especially the Middle East and South Asia, cannot be reconfigured quickly. The indigenous peoples do not like or understand swift change and their regimes have rarely been capable of rapid movement, much less motivated to attempt it. And when radical transformations have succeeded, they have either failed, as the shah’s attempt to modernize Iran did, or sputtered out and flapped eerily for decades, as Ataturk’s secularization of Turkey did after its instigator’s premature death in 1938. Israel is an exception, but it need hardly be emphasized that Israel is an exception to everything in the Middle East.
But the move of India to a policy of maximum economic growth, in response to China’s abandonment of harebrained Maoism in exchange for hell-for-leather capitalism — under the aegis, of course, of the Chinese Communist party — has backed westwards into the Middle East, as China’s economic growth has rippled out in all directions, among its neighbors and across the Pacific. These have been relatively sudden and profound changes that ramify very widely.
The reorientation of India under the Congress party, which for most of the country’s history riveted on the back of what Gandhi called “the hundred thousand dung-heaps of India” a pretentious, ludicrously bureaucratized hypocrisy, was almost as startling a volte-face as the metamorphosis of Chinese Communism. For decades, Congress’s failed and false governance was allegorized and personified by Jawaharlal Nehru, and then his daughter, Indira Gandhi, and then her sons, sitting in the same lawn chairs on the grounds of their official residence in New Delhi, fondling roses from the same rose bushes, and explaining that though there were hundreds of millions of desperately poor Indians, horrible inequities and conflicts, India remained the moral arbiter of the world because of its detachment from the Cold War and its anti-materialist spirituality.
When China abandoned the Maoist penchant for insane and sanguinary self-imposed chaos (as in the Great Leap Forward of the Fifties and the Cultural Revolution of the Sixties), India was jolted out of its torpid mantra of self-righteous gibberish, and obliged to seek economic growth. Of course, the implications of 40 percent of the world’s population in these two immense and ancient countries suddenly moving from secular economic stagnation to annual economic-growth rates of from 6 to 10 percent have been profound, and are gaining importance every year.
Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and even the Philippines have energized themselves economically, and absorbed some of the slack generated by the profound doldrums of Japan, following the collapse of its great challenge to the economic supremacy of the United States 20 years ago. Despite all the disappointments and false starts, the U.S., in the nine years since the Clinton administration ended, has resurrected a strategic position of some strength in South Asia and the Middle East, by breaking out of its double boycotts of India and Pakistan and Iran and Iraq, which ensured the complete inability of the U.S. to accomplish anything in either theater. India and Pakistan essentially took the same position that Iran has more recently: that the nuclear club is a fraud, in which a few countries revel in the implicit power of nuclear military capacity, claim to be seeking nuclear disarmament while doing nothing to achieve it, and try to bar the door to any new entrant to the nuclear top table. Contemptible though the Iranian regime is, it is calling the bluff of the nuclear powers, and the American response with energetic lip service to nuclear disarmament will not achieve anything useful.
The keys to American success in the vast sweep of Southern Asia from India to Israel are: to induce and facilitate the de-escalation of the enmity between the Pakistanis and Indians that antedates the independence and the breakup of the old British Indian Empire; to reduce directly its dependence on Middle Eastern oil, and to reduce the world oil price; to continue to assist effectively in the emergence of Iraq as a secular state with an appreciable level of power-sharing; and to ensure that Iran does not become a nuclear military power. The normalization of relations between India and Pakistan would enable those countries to stop their sponsorship of competing factions in Afghanistan, and enable Pakistan to exert a quasi-suzerainty over Afghanistan and ensure that it does not again become host to international terrorists. Of course, Pakistan will have to cleanse itself of that affliction also. It is indicative of the sluggishness and complexity of the Middle East that for all of the nine years that NATO, the U.N., and the U.S. have been slogging around Afghanistan, Pakistan has been playing a double game of assisting the West and patronizing its own (Haqqanah) Taliban faction within Afghanistan. This sort of ambivalence is common in the area, but very foreign to the mentality of America.
Equally worrisome has been the continued support of Saudi Arabia, militarily and through heavy oil imports, while that country, which is a joint venture between the royal House of Saud and the extremist leadership of the Wahhabi Muslim sect, continues to finance, through the Wahhabis, over 95 percent of international Islamic institutions, which propagate hatred and violence toward the West. The U.S., in the deployment of force, outlay of treasure, and sacrifice of its own military personnel in action, has effectively been on both sides of the war on terror throughout the time since Pres. George W. Bush declared the outbreak of that war after 9/11. What is now reckoned to be the improper departure of at least $1 billion annually from Afghanistan emphasizes that the corruption of the Karzai regime is the principal enemy. The Taliban, which severely punishes such heinous sacrileges as a child flying a kite or the education of a woman, derives support only from the mountainous corruption of the government. Americans must understand that toiling in this ambiguous condition for so long, and being, if I may, taken over the barrel by the Saudis and Pakistanis and Afghans and others in this way, has not heightened America’s credibility as a Great Power that really knows what it is doing.
The patience with which the U.S. is finally starting to take serious measures to reduce oil imports, and to push Pakistan to stop playing footsie with Haqqanah, and the Afghans to reduce corruption to less scandalous proportions, show that it is acquiring the patience of a long-term, strategically consistent power, with the judgment and staying power to pursue long-range objectives. It is living down the legacy of Vietnam and Beirut, as a country with a propensity to cut and run as soon as it becomes more complicated than Quemoy and Matsu, and some body bags come back from the front. The world is waiting to see if the U.S. can keep to this course, and provide whatever level and frequency of air interdiction is necessary to prevent an Iranian nuclear military capability, and retain the integrity of the nuclear club as a group of countries that can be relied upon to behave responsibly; and maintain whatever level of support is necessary to bring Iraq forward as a reasonably stable secular state with rising prosperity and some real power-sharing. Whatever else may be said of George W. Bush and his successor, including the chimerical “engagement” with Tehran, they have shown considerable determination and had some success in pursuing these difficult but vital goals, and in bringing domestic opinion with them, at least in adequate strength, or in ignoring its absence with commendable sangfroid. If the U.S. can continue on this course with increasing clarity and effectiveness, the terrorists will expire, and there will be peace between India and Pakistan and between the Hindus and Muslims generally. And there will be no more talk, for a long time, of American decline.