By M K Bhadrakumar
India, Brazil and South Africa have put a spoke in the American wheel, which seemed up until Tuesday inexorably moving, turning and turning in the direction of imposing a "no-fly" zone over Libya.
Arguably, the United States can still impose a zone, but then President Barack Obama will have to drink from the poisoned chalice and resurrect his predecessor's controversial post-Cold War doctrine of "unilateralism" and the "coalition of the willing" to do that. If he does so, Obama will have no place to hide and all he has done in his presidency to neutralize America's image as a "bully" will come unstuck.
New Delhi hosted a foreign minister-level meeting with Brazil and South Africa on Tuesday, which was to have been an innocuous occasion for some rhetorical "South-South" cooperation. On the contrary, the event soared into the realm of the troubled world order and shaky contemporary international system. The meeting took a clear-cut position of nyet vis-a-vis the growing Western design to impose a "no-fly" zone over Libya.
All indications are that the US and its allies who are assisting the Libyan rebels politically, militarily and financially have been hoping to extract a "request" from the Libyan people within a day or two at the most as a fig-leaf to approach the United Nations Security Council for a mandate to impose sanctions under the auspices of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The Libyan rebels are a divided house: nationalist elements staunchly oppose outside intervention and the Islamists among them are against any form of Western intervention.
'Unilateralism' only option on table
NATO defense ministers held a meeting in Brussels on Tuesday to give practical touches to a possible intervention by the alliance in Libya. That the meeting was attended by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates was indicative of the importance attached to the run-up to the alliance's proposed intervention in Libya. Gates missed an earlier informal NATO defense ministers' meeting on Libya held on the outskirts of Budapest a fortnight ago.
United States-British diplomacy was moving on a parallel track drumming up a unified position by the Libyan rebels to seek an international intervention in their country and specifically in the form of a "no-fly" zone. The Arab League and the African Union also maintain an ambiguous stance on the issue of such a zone.
Obama's calculation is that if only a Libyan "people's request" could be generated, that would in historical terms absolve him and the West of the blame of invading a sovereign member country of the United Nations - from a moral and political angle, at least - as well as push the Arab League and African Union into the enterprise.
Being a famously cerebral intellectual also, Obama is a politician with a difference and can be trusted to have an acute sense of history. His predecessor George W Bush would have acted in similar circumstances with "audacity", an idiom that is ironically associated with Obama.
Obama's tryst with history is indeed bugging him in his decision-making over Libya. Robert Fisk, the well-known chronicler of Middle Eastern affairs for the Independent newspaper of London, wrote a sensational dispatch on Monday that the Obama administration had sought help from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia for secretly ferrying American weapons to the Libyan rebels in Benghazi, for which Riyadh would pick up the tab so that the White House would need no accountability to the US Congress and leave no traceable trail to Washington.
The moral depravity of the move - chartering the services of an autocrat to further the frontiers of democracy - underscores Obama's obsessive desire to camouflage any US unilateral intervention in Libya with "deniability" at all costs.
Now comes the body blow from the Delhi meeting. The three foreign ministers belonging to the forum that is known by the cute acronym IBSA (India-Brazil-South Africa) thwarted Obama's best-laid plans by issuing a joint communique on Tuesday in which they "underscored that a 'no-fly' zone on the Libyan air space or any coercive measures additional to those foreseen in Resolution 1970 can only be legitimately contemplated in full compliance with the UN Charter and within the Security Council of the United Nations".
Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio de Aguiar Patriota told the media in Delhi that the IBSA statement was an "important measure" of what the non-Western world was thinking". He said, "The resort to a 'no-fly' zone is seen as expedient when adopted by a country but it weakens the system of collective security and provokes indirect consequences prejudicial to the objective we have been trying to achieve." Patriota added:
It is very problematic to intervene militarily in a situation of internal turmoil, Any decision to adopt military intervention needs to be considered within the UN framework and in close coordination with the African Union and the Arab League. It is very important to keep in touch with them and identify with their perception of the situation.
He explained that measures like a no-fly zone might make a bad situation worse by giving fillip to anti-US and anti-Western sentiments "that have not been present so far".
Equally significant was the fact that the trio of foreign ministers also penned a joint statement on the overall situation in the Middle East. Dubbed as the "IBSA Declaration", it reiterated the three countries' expectation that the changes sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa should "follow a peaceful course" and expressed their confidence in a "positive outcome in harmony with the aspirations of the people".
A highly significant part of the statement was its recognition right at the outset that the Palestinian problem lay at the very core of the great Middle Eastern alienation and the "recent developments in the Region may offer a chance for a comprehensive peace ... This process should include the solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ... that will lead to a two-state solution, with the creation of a sovereign, independent, united and viable Palestinian State, coexisting peacefully alongside Israel, with secure, pre-1967 borders, and with East Jerusalem as its capital."
'P-5' loses shine
Israel will be hopping mad over the declaration. That apart, does it matter to Obama and NATO if three countries from three faraway continents stand up with a common stance on a "no-fly" zone? Who are these countries anyway? But, it does matter. Put simply, the three countries also happen to be currently serving as non-permanent members of the UN Security Council and their stance happens to have high visibility in the world's pecking order on Libya.
The indications in Delhi are that at least one more non-permanent member of the Security Council is their "fellow-traveler" - Lebanon. Which means the "Arab voice" in the Security Council. In short, what we hear is an Afro-Asian, Arab and Latin American collective voice and it cannot be easily dismissed. More importantly, the IBSA stance puts at least two permanent veto-wielding great powers within the Security Council on the horns of an acute dilemma.
Russia claims to have a foreign policy that opposes the US's "unilateralism" and which strictly abides by the canons of international law and the UN charter. China insists that it represents developing countries. Now, the IBSA stance makes it virtually impossible for them to enter into any Faustian deal with the US and Western powers over Libya within the sequestered caucus of the veto-holding powers of the Security Council - commonly known as the P-5.
Therefore, the IBSA joint statement, much like the Turkish-Brazilian move on the Iran nuclear problem, is virtually mocking at the moral hypocrisy of the P-5 and their secretive ways.
Ironically, Delhi adopted the IBSA communique even as US Vice President Joseph Biden was winging his way to Moscow for wide-ranging discussions on the future trajectory of the US-Russia reset. Any US-Russian tradeoff over Libya within the ambit of the reset would now get badly exposed as an act of unprincipled political opportunism.
China's predicament will be no less acute if it resorts to realpolitik. China is hosting the summit meeting of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in Beijing in April. Three "brics" out of BRICS come from IBSA. Can the BRICS afford to water down the IBSA joint communique on Libya? Can China go against the stance of three prominent "developing countries"?
On balance, however, China may heave a sigh of relief. The IBSA position may let the US pressure off China and delist the Libyan "no-fly" zone issue from morphing into a bilateral Sino-American issue. China cooperated with last week's Security Council resolution on Libya. It was an unusual move for China to vote for a resolution that smacked of "intervention" in the internal affairs of a sovereign country.
Western commentators were euphoric over the shift in Chinese behavior at the high table of world politics and were egging on the leadership at Beijing to finally shape up as a responsible world power that is willing to work with the West as a "stakeholder" in the international system - like Russia does.
Clearly, China is being cajoled to go a step further and jettison its other red line regarding a "no-fly" zone. There is no indication that China is about to concede its red line by succumbing to flattery. But, now, if China indeed does, it will be in broad daylight under the gaze of the developing countries. And it will be very difficult for Beijing to cover up such "pragmatism" with the veneer of principles. In a way, therefore, pressure is off China on the "no-fly" zone issue.
India regains identity
An interesting thought occurs: Is India forcing China's hand? Delhi has certainly taken note that the Libyan crisis provided China with a great opportunity to work with the US in a cooperative spirit that would have much positive spin-offs for the overall Sino-American relationship. The "no-fly" zone issue would have been turf where China and the US could have created an entirely new alchemy in their relationship. Beijing knows that Obama's presidency critically depends on how he acquits in the Middle East crisis.
All the same, Delhi's move cannot be dismissed as merely "China-centric". In geopolitical terms, it constitutes a highly visible slap on the American face. And there will be a price to pay in terms of Obama's wrath. That Delhi is willing to pay such a price - when so much is at stake in its bid for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council - makes the IBSA move highly significant. Indeed, it is after a very long time that Delhi will be refusing to stand up and be counted on a major American foreign policy front.
It is much more than a coincidence, too, that the declaration vociferously supported the Palestinian cause. India has taken the calculated risk of incurring the displeasure of Israel and the Israel lobby in the US. Besides, there are other signs, too, that Delhi has embarked on a major overhaul of its Middle East policies and the IBSA is only one template of the policy rethink - and, possibly not even the most far-reaching in the geopolitics of the region.
Even as the IBSA adopted its stance on Libya and the Middle East situation staunchly favoring Arab nationalism, India's National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon, a key policymaker of high reputation as a consummate diplomat and who works directly under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, was engaged in an engrossing and meaningful conversation elsewhere in the Middle East - with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
Away from the glare of television cameras, Menon handed over a letter from Manmohan to Ahmadinejad. According to the statement issued by Ahmadinejad's office, the Iranian leader told Menon:
Iran and India are both independent countries and they will play significant roles in shaping up the future of the international developments ... The relations between Iran and India are historic and sustainable. Iran and India due to being [sic] benefited from humanitarian viewpoints towards the international relations, should try to shape up the future world system in a way that justice and friendship would rule.
The ruling world is coming to its end and is on the verge of collapse. Under the current conditions, it is very important how the future world order will take shape and care should be taken that those who have imposed the oppressive world order against the mankind would not succeed in imposing it in a new frame anew ... Iran and India will be playing significant roles in the future developments in the world. Our two nations' cultures and origins are what the world needs today.
Menon reportedly told Ahmadinejad:
New Delhi is for the establishment of comprehensive relations with Iran, including strategic ties ... many of the predictions you [Ahmadinejad] had about the political and economic developments in the world have come to reality today and the world order is going under basic alterations [sic], which has necessitated ever-increasing relations between Iran and India ... The relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Republic of India are beyond the current political relations, having their roots in the cultures and the civilizations and the two nations and both countries have great potentials for improvement of bilateral, regional and international relations.
Nothing needs to be added. Nothing needs to be said further. In sum, this sort of Iran-India high-level political exchange was unthinkable until very recently and it highlights how much the Middle East has changed and Iran's role in it, and Delhi's perceptions and the Indian thinking regarding both.
Most important, Menon's arrival in Tehran at the present tumultuous juncture on a major path-breaking political and diplomatic mission to energize India-Iran strategic understanding also underscores the growing recognition in the region that the era of Western dominance of the Middle East is inexorably passing into history and the world order is not going to be the same again.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.