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S U B C O N T I N E N T A L   D R I F T
Mission: Impossible
Why Bill Clinton can't broker peace in South Asia

February 17, 2000
Web posted at 6 a.m. Hong Kong time, 5 p.m. EST

The buzz in Washington is that Bill Clinton is keen to end his term with a diplomatic coup in South Asia, by playing the peacemaker between India and Pakistan during his visit to the region next month. This is why his Administration has kept open the possibility that the President might drop by Islamabad (in addition to Delhi and Dhaka). The White House recognizes it can't erase five decades of subcontinental acrimony overnight, but Clinton would gain some bragging rights if he could just get the two sides to sit down at a negotiating table--just as he did in Northern Ireland and the Middle East.

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Don't get your hopes up, Mr. President. The news from Northern Ireland and the Middle East this past week reminded us how difficult it is for an outsider--even the sole surviving superpower--to soothe ancient animosities. In the subcontinent, the task is doubly difficult because neither side really WANTS peace. It doesn't help that Clinton has no carrot or stick large enough to force Delhi and Islamabad to start talking sense. And finally, both sides are too suspicious of Washington's motives to take its peacemaking proposals seriously.

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The main problem is that the establishment on each side of the Indo-Pakistani border has a vested interest in enmity. Like most right-wing groups, the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party of Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee thrives on antagonism: the party is best known for what it stands against, not what it stands for. In recent years, it has been forced to soften its anti-Muslim, anti-Christian stance in order to satisfy a largely moderate electorate. If it weren't for the Pakistani bogeyman, the BJP would have no political leg to stand on. And if it weren't for the Indian bogeyman, Pakistan's ruling generals would have no jobs. A giant enemy next door helps them justify massive military expenditure in a bankrupt economy.

What can Clinton do to overturn those vested interests? Not a whole lot. His Balkan solution--the bombing of Serbia into sullen submission--obviously can't be applied to South Asia. Neither country depends heavily on American aid, so he couldn't threaten to cut it off. Sure, both are keen to attract U.S. private-sector investment, but nobody believes the President can stop American companies from putting their money where they please.

Besides, it's hard to play the honest broker in a dispute when neither of the protagonists believes you're honest. Frozen in a cold-war mindset, New Delhi still views the U.S. as "my enemy's friend" for its long history of chummy relations with Pakistan and China. Islamabad, meanwhile, worries that its old friend, no longer requiring a bulwark against Soviet expansion, is cozying up to the country that can promise a larger market for hamburgers and Coke.

So what CAN Clinton do during his South Asian sojourn? He can make the usual noises about the need for peace and stability in the region. And he can pray--like the rest of us--that the subcontinent's leaders take heed.

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