- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 2, 2005

Are we seeing profound and even tectonic shifts in the Bush foreign policy? Or are these really tepid and modest steps by an administration convinced it is on the right track and thus needs no major course corrections? The latest U.S. policy toward India and Iraq suggests the former.

The tilt toward India was bold and welcome. Last month, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Bush agreed to Indian purchases of U.S. equipment for nuclear power plant construction and armaments, thus ending a long embargo. As the world’s largest democracy with a population of about 1 billion, a huge Muslim contingent and a vast market for U.S. goods and services, this rapprochement makes sense. Given the improvement in Indian-Pakistani relations, the United States can now avoid the either-or condition of choosing between Islamabad and Delhi as a principal partner in South Asia.

Some argue that India is an ideal strategic U.S. counterweight to China — a new version of Richard Nixon’s triangular politics, in which Beijing became the means to leverage Moscow and the old Soviet Union. China surely will view the new U.S.-Indian relationship with a degree of suspicion and as a possible warning as it expands its economic muscle and presence with the bid for Unocal oil and its acquisition of British auto manufacturer MG Rover. So the risk is this new relationship turning China into a foe or competitor, either by miscalculation or design.

Last week in Baghdad, Gen. George Casey, the Army commander in Iraq, floated the prospect that if security does not worsen in that embattled land, the United States might withdraw some of its troops as early as next spring. With Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in attendance at the press briefing, Gen. Casey’s admittedly caveated comments took on added weight. There are good reasons for such a withdrawal to cope with intense pressures in Iraq for an end to the occupation, rising concern at home over the insurgency and an Army under great stress to continue these difficult deployments because of personnel constraints. Thus, despite the president’s promise to “stay the course” in Iraq, a potentially profound shift in American policy may be in the wind.

On the other hand, too much can be read into both of these cases. Normalizing or improving relations with India is sensible as long as we understand the implications for China. Whether or not the United States reduces its presence in Iraq will depend on many unpredictable and unforeseen events — Iraq completing a constitution by Aug. 15, electing a new government in keeping with the ambitious schedule and, most importantly, the state of the insurgency.

But there are other tectonic prospects. For sometime there has been a drumbeat to deal with Syria. Many in the administration believe that the Iraqi insurgency has its roots in Syria. A military strike or even broader incursion into Syria to disrupt support of the insurgency and possibly to scare or even overthrow President Bashir Assad has been rumored for months. And Iran still heads the list of the Axis of Evil, all the while being too coy by half over its nuclear intentions. In this writer’s view, the use of military force in either case would range from the foolish to the catastrophic. But, no doubt it would be tectonic.

If the administration is thinking about pursuing bolder and even sweeping policy changes, North Korea is a target of opportunity. The strategy here draws from World War II. Faced with a two-front war in the Atlantic and Pacific, the Allies elected to win first in Europe and to hold in the Pacific before turning our full might against Japan. While the global war on terror is now morphing into a war on extremism, the battlefield remains geographically huge if not global. Because we cannot fight on every front simultaneously, why not move to neutralize any challenges on the Korean peninsula through bold negotiation? There are signs or glimmers that North Korea’s leader, Kim Jung Il, is clearly interested in bartering over his nuclear ambitions if only to gain access to economic and financial aid and support.

Here China is crucial. In private, Chinese leaders have been positive toward an arrangement in which Beijing would act discretely and powerfully to bring about the nuclear disarmament of the north. If that move proved successful, the quid pro quo would be a new understanding over Taiwan that would neuter the independence issue. The administration would declare that if China attacked Taiwan without provocation, America would still defend the island. But if Taiwan were to declare independence without cause, then “all bets would be off.” If all of this could happen, and it may be a bridge too far, that would be truly tectonic.

Harlan Ullman is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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