WITH THE NEWS from Iraq relegated to the back pages recently, last Friday's State Department briefing--especially since it was not devoted to Condoleezza Rice's latest fashion statements--attracted little attention. The subject: the evolving strategic partnership between the United States and India. The news? It is the "goal" of the Bush administration "to help India become a major world power in the 21st century."
This is indeed a monumental and welcome development; it's the clearest sign to date that the Bush Doctrine has a genuine strategic logic, that it's more than a justification for the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. To realize the president's goals, particularly the commitment to spreading freedom that was the core message of his Second Inaugural Address, the United States needs a workable, how-to plan, one that bends the instruments of international politics--most notably, the tools of "hard" power like military force and political alliances--to American purposes. A U.S.-India strategic partnership, if fully developed, would be the single most important step toward an alliance capable of meeting the 21st century's principal challenges: radical Islam and rising China.
Unlike our almost erstwhile allies in western Europe, India shares an equal strategic concern with both these challenges. Perhaps even more important, India shares a commitment to democracy that transcends ethnic nationalism--Hindu nationalism, in this case, will not suffice to govern a state that includes 120 million Muslims--and an understanding of the necessity for armed strength. India's position in South Asia puts it in an essential geostrategic location from both a continental and maritime perspective. In sum, the United States could hardly dream up a more ideal strategic partner.
A number of commentators have missed the shift in U.S. strategic priorities by drawing an analogy between the administration's policies on arms sales to Pakistan and India, and in the bestowing of "major non-NATO ally" status on Pakistan. And in the minds of others, the practice of strategy invalidates the commitment to democracy--Pakistan being something less than a fully free state. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer denounced the sale of F-16s to Pakistan as "A Con Job by Pakistan's Pal, George Bush." But, as so often, Bush-hatred blinds these sorts to the larger strategic picture.
It would be useful for them to listen to the new voices emerging in New Delhi; Indians see the importance of this change more than many Americans do. "The F-16s don't matter," Raja Menon writes in the March 30 Indian Express. "The March 25 Statement"--it's already taken on an almost-iconic status in India--is creating "opportunities like never before" for India. "If India has the boldness to dump the non-aligned rhetoric of the past," Menon argues, "the country stands to gain in many areas."
Militarily, Menon is quite right; the F-16s are almost a waste of money for Pakistan, whose primary security worries come from the Sunni Islamists inside its borders. A major conventional war with India would be suicidal for the Pakistanis, as, of course, would any nuclear exchange. The guerilla war in Kashmir is a ball and chain that Pakistan cannot seem to lose. Fretting about the F-16s is myopic; as Menon concludes, "If 24 F-16s make Pakistan feel secure, all the better."
By contrast, he notes, "On India's access to high-tech military technology, the American offer today is stunning. Our 30-year complaint [about] denial regimes [that] have targeted India has now been rubbished with the American offers of joint production of world class combat aircraft. This is not to be mistaken for a hardware sale, but a realization that the Americans can live with a regional power like India."
The fact is that the United States can not only live with India as a regional power but, as Secretary Rice frankly told India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the Bush administration is willing to help India become a great power, even--especially--in the military sense: "We understand fully the implications, including military implications" of this shift in policy, says the State Department. Singh is scheduled to visit the Bush ranch this summer to seal these deals.
Indeed, one danger is that some Indians are getting ahead of themselves, imagining that they have the upper hand in a partnership that's still in the courtship phase. It's an understandable emotion--U.S.-Indian relations have been frustrating for decades and Indians have a lot of issues that are played out in "non-aligned rhetoric." And with the romance comes great risk and responsibility; the Europeans have refused the offer of continued partnership with the United States for a reason: It has a price tag measured in blood and treasure.
Nevertheless, "The March 25 Statement" should be thought of as a very big deal, with great credit due to Rice and probably to Robert Blackwill, former ambassador to India and the man called in by Rice to sort out U.S. Iraq policy while she was still National Security Adviser. Not only does this signal a new direction for U.S. India policy, but it's a reflection that the administration is beginning to understand the global logic of the Bush Doctrine. And it may signal that the president and his senior lieutenants are even thinking through the problem of how to assert the Bush Doctrine and deal with China.
Tom Donnelly is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.