Innovations in diplomacy: introducing the anti-ally alliance

Let's peel away the diplomatic varnish, shall we? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's statement today in New Delhi that the U.S. and India are "allies in the fight against violent extremist networks" was essentially the announcement of an alliance against Pakistan. 

Pakistan is America's ally, of course. We say it all the time. Unfortunately, Pakistan also harbors our enemies, supports our enemies, tolerates the intolerable by our enemies, and is therefore also our enemy. Not all of Pakistan, of course. Just some of the most influential of its elites and institutions as well as substantial cross-sections of its population.

Pakistan therefore has no one to blame for the steady deepening of the security ties between the United States and India than itself. As containing the problems within Pakistan through cooperation with the Pakistanis looks increasingly difficult, it is only natural that the United States should simultaneously develop a Plan B approach. That approach is containment and it necessarily must involve a partnership with India.

That India and the United States share many other interests, are the world's two leading democracies, having rapidly growing, deepening economic ties, and share cultural links associated with their past experiences within the British empire make the partnership a natural one. Differences and frustrations will exist naturally -- and some surrounding the U.S.-India nuclear power deal have surfaced during Clinton's India visit -- but there is perhaps no single major power relationship likely to undergo more positive change over the next several decades than that between Washington and New Delhi. To put it another way, this is the emerging world-developed world major power axis of cooperation to watch most closely as it is the one where the aligned interests are perhaps greatest.

The deterioration of U.S. relations with the Pakistanis coupled with the acceleration of Pakistan's development of its nuclear arsenal is only one aspect of these ties and, for Clinton, among the most delicate to handle. That's why her directness in making the statements she did is so striking, timely ... and utterly appropriate.

The recent attacks in Mumbai may not, as of yet, be linked to any groups associated with the Pakistanis, but they certainly remind of the attacks that took place in 2008 and claimed 160 lives which were the handiwork of extremist groups with close ties to some in the Pakistani intelligence services.  The fact that these most recent incidents took place while the head of Pakistani intelligence services was visiting Washington was a particularly uncomfortable coincidence.   

So when Clinton said that the U.S. would not accept any nation offering "safe havens and free pass" it is clear who she was talking about. It is clear that the discovery of Osama bin Laden being nurtured in the bosom of Pakistan has had a permanent impact on the relationship and that the subsequent bristling of the Pakistanis and their push back on key aspects of U.S.-Pakistani cooperation in combating terror have pushed the alliance to being, in key respects, to use the words of one U.S. government official with whom I recently spoke, "stubbornly dysfunctional." 

The U.S. has had, in the past, myriad dysfunctional alliances. But you have to go back to that with the Soviets in the waning days of World War II to find one in which a leading ally was simultaneously viewed as a leading threat. While the statements in New Delhi today do not suggest that our alliance with Islamabad is finished, it does send a clear message that, as was the case with the Soviets, flawed alliances can be turned into dangerously adversarial relationships almost overnight if the sides involved do not work in good faith to resolve their differences.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

David Rothkopf

What is the most powerful force in the modern Middle East? (Hint: It's not change)

It is not the narrative we had hoped for. It is certainly not the story line that would have been most uplifting. It is not even the scenario that seems most consistent with the course of centuries of human progress. But it is one we have to consider because with every passing day, it does seem the direction events are now headed.

Judging from developments throughout the Middle East, it seems quite possible that the primary outcome of the "Arab Spring" may be the reinforcing of the power of the old guard.

In Egypt, recent reports such as David Kirkpatrick's in the New York Times this weekend suggest that the military is working tirelessly to retain its traditionally dominant behind-the-scenes role in that country's political life even after any further reforms are implemented. In addition, political candidates -- like former foreign minister Amr Moussa -- with close ties to Hosni Mubarak's regime may fare well in upcoming elections.

In Jordan, Yemen, and Tunisia, promises of reform have thus far outnumbered any substantial steps in that direction. (See, for a thoughtful analysis, my Carnegie colleague Marina Ottaway's "Tunisia: The Revolution Is Over, Can Reform Continue?")

In Syria, while Bashar al-Assad regime has been weakened by protests, even weaker has been the international response to its brutality. The regime could well survive. Perhaps more importantly vis-à-vis the region at large, take how it has thus far faired compared with toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, and the message to autocrats threatened in the future may be: strike hard, strike without mercy, the worst you will have to contend with from the rest of the planet is a flurry of diplomatic wrist-slaps. The fact that similar crackdowns in Iran and Bahrain were also effective only underscores the point.

In Bahrain, the formula is a little more pernicious. It suggests for regimes lucky enough to be located in the Gulf -- because of the oil, because of America's desire to contain Iran, because of old friendships -- you can get away with virtually anything. See today's article in the Independent titled "Poet jailed in protests claims she was beaten by Bahraini royal." It is a credible account of just one more ugly dimension of a protracted repressive episode that the United States and the rest of the world effectively chose to ignore … which in such cases is much the same thing as complicity.

Indeed, with the exception of the protracted, expensive, muddled Libya episode, as important to the current conditions in the region as the entrenched nature of elites has been the comparative passivity of the rest of the world. While some of this may be a byproduct of the natural tendency to be wary of the devils we don't know -- borne out perhaps in the drift of Egypt toward being a state run by the same old elites but this time with a considerably less constructive attitude toward Israel, for example -- it still feeds the notion that the most powerful force in the Middle East is not new technologies, or religion, or demographics, but inertia.

This is not only bad for the aspirant millions of the region, but it does not bode well for future stability because while elites may retain their hold on power, the challenges they face are not likely to go away. Indeed, for all the reasons that brought uprisings to the fore this year, they are likely to continue to fester and be more difficult to handle.

Worse still, however, is that perhaps the only thing less dependable than a Middle East roiled by political upheaval is one that is not. History has repeatedly shown that among the few things the West can depend on from its allies in the region is duplicity -- whether the issue is maintaining stable, affordable supplies of oil or combating terrorism. A particularly unsettling glimpse into this phenomenon pertaining to America's most important and therefore possibly most dangerous Arab ally comes in the current issue of Vanity Fair. The article is titled "The Kingdom and the Towers," and despite the spottiness of the story it sketches out, it only further underscores the degree to which our thirst for Saudi oil has forced us to tolerate the intolerable from some among the al-Sauds and those close to them.

Since that thirst has not abated and won't anytime soon and since the leading powers of the world are showing less rather than more cohesion among their views thanks to the entrance of emerging powers into the mix and the self-absorption caused by economic turmoil and weak multilateral institutions, the result is likely to be even less resolve in the near future to actively support needed reforms in the region. And given the power of the status quo within the region, that suggests that the unintended consequence of recently celebrated upheavals may ultimately send precisely the opposite message that many of us envisioned -- that for the foreseeable future at least, the story of the region is likely to be one of hopes dashed or deferred.