South Asia and the Middle East: Regional Solutions vs. Choosing Sides

If you’re familiar with the conventional wisdoms of the Indian national security community, you’ll know that it is characterized by a heightened sensitivity to anything remotely resembling U.S. support — let alone favoritism — shown to Pakistan. And not surprisingly, the same holds for Pakistani national security thinkers regarding elements of the U.S.-India strategic relationship — in particular, the U.S.-India civil nuclear cooperation agreement.

So what you end up with is that the Pakistanis put a request for the same kind of agreement on the agenda of the first U.S.-Pakistan strategic partnership dialogue. And because U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton doesn’t dismiss the request out of hand — instead diplomatically saying, We’ll consider it even though it’s wildly premature compared to the same kinds of discussions we had with India — you get this kind of piece from Nighal Singh, via Real Clear World:

That the US is now willing “to listen” to Pakistan’s plea and, in the US secretary of state, Ms Hillary Clinton’s words, “going to be considering it”, is a warning signal to India of the storms ahead in the Indo-US strategic partnership. . . .

The problem for India is two-fold: safeguarding its important relationship with Washington and to make it loud and clear to the US that this relationship will be adversely affected by the extent to which the United States chooses to tilt towards Pakistan for short-term gains.

Now, I’ve argued in the past that our tendency to minimize the actual threat that India and Pakistan pose to each other is at best subjectively determined and at worst misguided. So my point here is actually not to necessarily disagree with Singh’s logic, so much as to compare it to the logic of U.S. policy across regions. In South Asia, India and Pakistan say to us, Pick a side, you can’t have both. And we respond, What we need is a regional solution.

Meanwhile, one neighborhood over, in the Middle East, we’re busy saying to Turkey, Syria, Qatar and others, Pick a side, us or Iran, you can’t have both. And they respond, as does Iran, What we need is a regional solution.

Here’s where the recent developments in the U.S.-Israel relationship, as well as Israel’s recent “bull in a china shop” diplomatic blunders (Turkey, Dubai hit) come in. Up to now, the regional solution proposed by the U.S. was essentially: U.S. “outstretched hand” + Israel-Palestine peace track + Arab Peace Initative + Turkey-mediated Israel-Syria peace track = isolated Iran. Pick a side, in that case, looks like a reasonable alternative.

But as Akiva Eldar relates, Israel has essentially said, “Screw you,” to the four components of that equation, while still hoping to come out with the same result — an isolated Iran. Instead, the alternative regional solution that we’re seeing emerge is something along the lines of: Arab League hedging on Iran + Gulf states hedging on Iran + Turkey hedging on Iran = Iran off the hook. That’s a decidedly weaker case for the “pick a side” argument.

Clearly, this is not all Israel’s fault. Iran said, “Screw you,” to the outstretched hand, too, and Arab governments suggested that an outstretched hand wasn’t good enough so long as it remained empty. But it’s increasingly clear that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu felt no need to harmonize his stance with that of the Obama administration, believing he could simply wait it out.

We’re still in the early stages of finding out if he was right or wrong. But in terms of regional policy moving forward, I don’t see any way that the Netanyahu government as currently constituted and the Obama presidency can both maintain their legitimacy. One or the other has to fall, either Netanyahu’s coalition or Obama’s regional approach. But it’s looking increasingly like a zero-sum contest between them.

Either way, the only hope the “pick a side” approach now has is that the alternative — trusting Iran — is even less attractive. The upcoming Arab League summit, for all its predictable fissures, will provide some early tell of whether the preferred U.S. coalition can survive.

If there’s a distinction to be made with South Asia, that’s perhaps it. Because at least in South Asia, the regional solution, while possibly hopeless, is indeed a better alternative to nuclear-armed neighbors on hair-trigger alert. Then again, we might not be that far way from that in the Middle East, too. Happy days . . .