Friday, August 29, 2008

Is Biden a good choice?

Published in The Daily Star, August 30, 2008

SENATOR Obama has chosen Senator Biden as his running mate during the Democratic convention now underway in Denver. Many outside the USA and particularly in Bangladesh will be disappointed that it was not Senator Hillary Clinton on the ticket. Has Obama made the same mistake that Al Gore did in 2000 where the choice of the Vice-President was crucial in the ultimate result in a very closely fought election?

It is a question too early to answer. Between now and Election Day on 4th of November, a lot of hitherto unknown issues are bound to come into play. Also, the issues at play already such as the Iraq War and the state of the economy will come under much more serious scrutiny of the media and the electorate. Together with these issues, the candidates will also face the same soul searching attention of voters. After eight years of George Bush who has not just turned the world upside down but has also messed up his own country in a manner no US President has, the coming US Presidential election will be the most important ever for the Americans.

During the primaries, Obama came from the back and captured not just the imagination of his own party but the nation in beating the front-runner Hillary Clinton with the promise of change. He was a breath of fresh air for a suffocating nation. He caught the attention of voters nationwide earlier with his keynote address at the Democratic Party convention in 2004. Then as he toured the country, speaking on behalf of Democratic Party candidates in the 2006 congressional elections that the party won handsomely, the nation saw him and was impressed. His two biographies, Audacity of Hope and Dreams from My Father, both best sellers, have helped him touch base round the country. Thus when he became the presumptive candidate against Senator McCain, opinion polls nationwide gave him a 15 % lead by early June; his performance before the media and his closeness to a discredited Bush administration helped Obama.

That double-digit gap has now vanished. A CNN poll this week put both candidates tied at 47%. A CNN poll a month ago had McCain trailing Obama by 7% margin. McCain who was an underdog in his own party's nomination race and then underdog to Obama when both were presumptive candidates is now in the race with a bang. It would therefore be useful to look into the reasons why Obama lost his big lead. Obama came into the scene with his charm; his opposition to the Iraq war and his message of change that rekindled in many hopes that Kennedy had brought to a majority of Americans in the 1960 elections who were frustrated with 8 years of Eisenhower when communism made great strides worldwide. In fact, it was the Iraq war that many had predicted would make or break either of the candidates in getting voters' approval. Obama got the early lead, despite being the first ever black to dream of becoming the US President, because, with his charm and charisma, he consistently opposed the Iraq war, and has made no flip flop on the issue.

By June, an “Obamamania” had gripped USA. A new generation of first time US voters in millions of all races were flocking wherever Obama spoke, encouraging many to believe that the White House was within his reach. Although McCain has very strong credentials as a war veteran who had spent 5 years as a POW in Vietnam and excellent foreign affairs credentials being credited for normalization of US's relations with Vietnam, his age and his appearances before the media where he has fumbled many times, brought many detractors, some even suggesting his mental competence. In one of his famous faux pas before the media, he placed Iraq on the borders of Afghanistan.

The sharp differences remain. Yet Obama's lead is falling for a variety of reasons. Millions of voters who were hitherto watching the candidates without commenting are now coming into the equation as the election enters the post-convention period. They are looking at the issues more than the candidates. Of these issues, Iraq war is now playing out in a much different manner. In the last few months, the violence in Iraq has decreased dramatically; so has the number of US soldiers getting killed there. Americans, despite acknowledging that the war was a mistake are less concerned with it now as they were a few months back. They feel that US involvement there will end anyway, no matter who the President becomes because an agreement has been reached this week between Iraq and USA to pull out all troops by 2011. Ironically, many now feel that McCain, with his experience in foreign affairs and his background as a war veteran, may be better placed to end US involvement in Iraq.

Thus Iraq war trump card for the Democrats has lost a lot of its value, making the poor health of the economy, healthcare, the central issues for the voters. The rising gas price from US$ 1 plus a gallon at the beginning of Bush's tenure to over US$ 4 a gallon at present, has caused an economic upheaval in the lives of all Americans in a way never before in history, leaving no corner of the economy unaffected. People are losing their jobs, their houses and indeed their hopes for their future. The average American is now aware that gas price has risen so dramatically because no major oil fields have been discovered worldwide, none in the USA where prospect of discovering oil in the Gulf of Mexico is tremendous. Unfortunately, the Democrats oppose offshore drilling on environmental grounds led by Al Gore and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi that Obama supported during the primaries. The Republicans are blaming the Democrats for rise of gas prices by telling Americans that if the Democrats withdrew their opposition to offshore drilling, gas prices would fall significantly. That argument is sinking with the voters against Obama.

In his keynote speech at the Democrats' Convention in 2004, Obama had said that there is no conservative America; no liberal America but a United States of America. Americans cheered that speech as it was delivered with oratory that was charismatic. But that oratory and charisma shelved a fundamental truth about the American society; that America is primarily a conservative country where liberal ideas are not popular. The Republicans represent that conservative heart of USA, which is not all for there are many conservatives also among the Democrats. Thus sheer arithmetic works in favour of the Republicans, which is why they won six of the last nine US Presidential elections. Further, the Republicans are up against an inexperienced black candidate who has a Muslim middle name. Added to these, Hillary supporters (8 million plus voted for her in the primaries that was more than Obama's vote tally) have threatened to work against Obama after she was by-passed for Biden, a possibility that the McCain camp is already fully exploiting in their ad campaign.

Obama should have chosen Hillary to bring the party together when his ratings are falling. He has however chosen Biden to overcome his weakness in foreign affairs where Biden is the expert and currently Chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Biden is also expected to overcome voters' concern that Obama is inexperienced in the way federal government works. But Biden has his own problems, having withdrawn from the 1988 Presidential race on charges of plagiarism as a law student and then as a politician when he lifted extracts out of a speech of the British Labour Leader Neil Kennock in 1987. The Republicans are sure to exploit the weaknesses to their fullest. Earlier, Obama visited Israel to answer criticism that he is weak in foreign affairs. There he promised the Israelis everything and to the Palestinians very little. Just before his tenure ended in 2000, Clinton had offered to the Palestinians East Jerusalem as capital of the state of Palestine. Obama's promise of the entire Jerusalem to Israel has disappointed the Muslim world, which believes that the failure of resolving the just rights of the Palestinians will not set to rest the current tensions between the West and the Islamic world.

All these facts taken together suggest that a predominantly conservative USA, despite all Obama's charm and brilliance, is viewed as a liberal though he is trying his best to stress upon his conservative Christian upbringing (in his grandparents' home) where also his onetime pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright has done incredible damage. Thus his liberal beliefs, his Muslim middle name, his Afro-American background and his inexperience may yet be his greatest obstacles and he has to convince the Americans on each of these before they give him a nod for the White House. Charm, oratory and charisma may not take him. Biden's choice as his running mate may improve his ratings with those who view foreign affairs as an important issue. Unfortunately most Americans do not and thus Hillary and not Biden may have been a better choice.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Transit and Geopolitical Realities

Published in The Daily Star August 16, 2008

BANGLADESH has once again deflected the Indian request for transit at the just concluded Foreign Secretary level talks. The transit to the seven Northeast Indian provinces (Assam, Nagaland, Tripura, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh) known as the Seven Sisters (SS) from the rest of India through Bangladesh, to which request to use of the Chittagong Port for these provinces was added later, has been unresolved since the Bangladesh-India Trade Agreement of 1972 called for use of railways, waterways and road in each other's country for trade.

In isolation, the request is innocuous, an economic issue in the words of the Indian High Commissioner. In the context of Bangladesh-India relations, it is neither innocuous nor economic but a highly sensitive issue. All past Governments of Bangladesh, political parties, the civil society and the public generally have rejected the issue. In a country where bipartisanship on national issues is unknown to the two major political parties, this issue unites both the BNP and the AL in denial, as it unites every group, every opinion. The manner in which political parties, the civil society and the public reject the Indian request is also worth noting as was evident in a meeting called by the BNP alliance to protest the Indian request when news came to press that the current Government would agree to give India transit, at the New Delhi Bangladesh India Foreign Secretary level meeting. Speakers were so charged that it appeared as if India had invaded Bangladesh unilaterally.

Why does a seemingly innocuous issue arouse such nationalistic passion in Bangladesh? It is a very complex question whose answer is embedded partly in psychology and party in history. A fear that Bangladesh would lose its sovereignty to India has never left the minds of most Bangladeshis since her independence, because India is 23 times bigger, and surrounds her on three sides. This fear has been aggravated by a history of India's overbearing attitude in all unresolved bilateral issues where she has been unilateral and unfair in negotiations to resolve them. The Ganges water sharing issue arising out of India's unilateral construction and implementation of the Farakka Barrage just before the mighty Ganges enters Bangladesh has been the litmus test in enhancing Bangladesh's fear and distrust of India. Bangladeshis believe they were taken for granted on the Farakka issue and denied a fair share of the waters of this international river since it was activated in 1974 that has started the process of desertification of northern part of Bangladesh. Almost all of Bangladesh's other 50 plus rivers, including the Brahmaputra, also flow from India. As an agricultural country where her rivers sustain life and livelihood in a major way, this fact sends shivers down most Bangladeshis spine in the fear that India would ultimately deprive them of the waters of these rivers as well. In 1974, the two countries signed the Indira-Mujib Border Agreement that Bangladesh ratified within months and fulfilled its obligations. Till today India has not fulfilled its treaty obligations. In 1992, Bangladesh lowered tariffs against a large number of Indian commodities soon after signing the SAPTA. India has not done so yet, as a result of which the bilateral trade imbalance that was already heavily in India's favour has widened further. India has built fence all along its border with Bangladesh to stop what it terms as illegal migration, which Bangladesh denies. A segment of the Indian media and academia have been instrumental in projecting Bangladesh as a fundamentalist Muslim state although she is a liberal democracy.

The India psychosis is also based on India's poor relations with her other South Asian neighbours where only Pakistan has been taken seriously as it is a fellow nuclear power. India has not taken positive steps to allay their fears appearing instead the same way the neo-cons under Bush appear to the rest of the world; a take it or leave it attitude that has vitiated good neighborliness in South Asia. Given its size and importance, India's neighbours expect her to allay their insecurity by making concession to their needs. Instead, India has demanded more of its neighbours than the concessions she has made or willing to make.

The psychology and history explaining the passion of ultra-nationalism that India arouses in Bangladesh notwithstanding, it is time we take a reality check on the transit issue. A few facts beg consideration for our national interest. The first is geopolitics; that Bangladesh just not stands in between the SS and the rest of India; she is also between these provinces and their access to the sea, thus holding the key to their economic development to the fullest potential. If India gets transit, it will save her billions of dollars annually and time, both critical to the economic development of the SS. Second is India's role in world affairs. Today India is an acknowledged regional power. No great power will help Bangladesh to resolve her problems with India. Bangladesh will have to negotiate with India and resolve these issues. The importance of good relations with India can hardly be over-emphasized. For example, Bangladesh has, according to credible international energy assessments, potential for hydrocarbons in the Bay of Bengal. Unfortunately, her maritime boundary issue with India is unresolved. Bangladesh will thus have difficulty in drilling for oil or gas there.

Bangladesh must thus look at the transit issue dispassionately, bearing in mind that this is a card in her hand given by geography. Here are the advantages. The transit and the use of Chittagong Port will integrate the economies of the SS to Bangladesh giving her leverage in future negotiations with India on other issues where she now has none. Bangladesh will earn substantial amount of money from transit and use of the port because India must pay for using these not forgetting that she now spend billions of dollars and extra time annually in their absence. A positive stance will also motivate India to be fair to Bangladesh on water and other unresolved issues. It will also create trust and confidence in Bangladesh and the environment for mutually beneficial cooperation between just not Bangladesh and India but sub-regional cooperation by including Nepal and Bhutan to harness the vast water resources in the region that is potentially the second richest in the world. However, transit right need not necessarily be in perpetuity and can be always be revoked should India not reciprocate in equal measure.

Bangladesh must realize that the transit and use of Chittagong Port are the only cards she has to interest India and that a friendly India is crucial to her future. Given India's track record, it will not be easy to use these issues as negotiating chips for securing Bangladesh's interests such as a just share of waters of the common rivers, removing trade imbalance, a just and fair maritime accord, etc. That is a chance Bangladesh must take for its future. This will be a test of diplomatic skills of those in charge, whose hands Bangladesh must strengthen by a pragmatic stance on this issue in particular and on her relations with India in general.

However, decision on transit must be left to an elected government because of the significance of the issue, but resolve she must if she is realistic and has an understanding of the international forces at play in a new and evolving world order. India must consider the billions of dollars she will save from the transit and its positive impact on the SS. She must also consider the impact of this on the prospect of harnessing and using the vast water resources through sub-regional cooperation; in tackling her fear of terrorism; and the credibility it will create for her in world affairs where her poor relations with neighbours is one that those critical about her can legitimately use against her.

If Bangladesh plays the transit card right, there is no logical reason for India not to reciprocate for her own sake because the consequence of a destabilized of 150 million people is too nightmarish for her. Bangladesh and India must not waste a win win situation for both because of politics. India must show that her heart is large enough to match her size and stature. Bangladesh must show that she has a grasp of reality.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

National Security Council for Bangladesh

Published in The Daily Star, March 5, 2008

A US National Security Council in session

I once sat in a high profile meeting when the country had an elected government as a Director General in the Foreign Ministry. Those who attended that meeting were the Ministers of Foreign and Home Affairs with their respective Secretary and top level representatives of civil and military intelligence. Security issues were on top of the agenda of that meeting. I was astonished to learn at that meeting that on crucial national security issues, the Foreign Minister was in total darkness and that intelligence available to the military was unknown to the civil intelligence. At the Home Ministry, what the Secretary knew was not in his Minister's knowledge. Since that strange meeting, I always felt Bangladesh needed a National Security Council for a professional and transparent way to deal with national security and intelligence issues that are vital for formulating the country's foreign and defense policies.

A National Security Council or its equivalent is now an essential part of governments of most countries. It has become indispensable for professionally integrating intelligence and security issues into well considered foreign and defense policies for maintaining sovereignty and furthering national interests in an increasingly globalized world. It has been an integral part of Government in the United States since it was set up under the Presidency of President Harry Truman. In India, it was set up in 1998 when the BJP Government was in office. National Security Council of Pakistan in its current version was created in April 2004 by an Act.

Historically, National Security Council has followed a perceptible pattern in evolution. Countries with strong democratic foundations have evolved one type of NSC while a country where the presence of the military is strong has evolved a different type. The United States and India are good examples of the first type where the military and intelligence agencies are given a place in the NSC in advisory roles. Turkey is an example of the second type where its NSC called the Milli Guvenlik Kurulu has institutionalized Turkish military's dominance and influence over politics.

A NSC for Bangladesh is not a new idea. A circular was issued by the Cabinet Division in 1996 creating a 23 member NSC headed by the Prime Minister. It was given a wide range of responsibilities ranging from ensuring national security to accountability of the Government as well as dealing with internal problems tied to security. But the concept was stillborn and fizzled till this Government came to office. Going by what one reads in the newspapers, a NSC for Bangladesh seems imminent with a few suggesting that it will be in place as early as end of May.

Not everybody is of course excited that a NSC is imminent for Bangladesh. A great deal of doubt has arisen within the public as the concept has not been debated at any length by this Government. In the absence of the parliament, there is also no forum to debate this issue in a manner that can take all concerns on board. A few seminars by think tanks have attempted to debate the issue. Unfortunately, these seminars have added more doubt in the public mind. In one well-publicized seminar held recently, a sponsor went to the extent of stating to the media that a NSC should be constituted immediately in order to allow the country to benefit from all the positive developments that this Government has achieved after 1/11. His statement left no one in doubt that he was suggesting that unless the military is given a major role through the NSC, democracy would be in peril when an elected Government comes.

Therefore, in establishing a NSC in Bangladesh, a few issues must be settled first for such a Council not to be again stillborn like the attempt in 1996. Before it is delivered, it must be absolutely clear to the public that a NSC is not a civil versus military issue and that it is not a covert way of bringing the military into politics. It must also be made absolutely clear that, the mess into which the politicians have landed the country notwithstanding, the supremacy of elected representatives over un-elected ones is an undeniable fact in dealing with issues of sovereignty, security and intelligence. At the same time, a NSC should act as a reminder to elected representatives that they cannot put national interests and sovereignty into jeopardy by internal conflicts. Given our ethos as a nation where we perhaps stand uniquely on our own for sacrifices for establishing democracy, we should therefore chose as a model the US type of NSC with modifications to suit our needs (we need not have a very complex one as the US NSC is) while be careful in not going after the Turkish model that give too much prominence to the military.

A NSC for Bangladesh should be a two-tiered body. The apex tier should be headed by the Prime Minister. This body should meet at regular intervals to consider issues/papers/documents prepared by the second tier and give policy decisions on issues of national security. In addition to considering national security and intelligence issues that have direct relation to sovereignty or threat to it arising from external sources, the NSC should also be entrusted with internal crisis management that threatens sovereignty. The apex tier should in addition to the Prime Minister, have as members the Leader of the Opposition, Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs, and Defense (why should the Prime Minister hold this portfolio? Is politics involved here?), the Chief of the Army (in place of a Joint Chief of Staff that we do not have in Bangladesh) and the Cabinet Secretary. Chiefs of civil and military intelligence should sit in NSC meetings as advisors. The second tier should comprise bureaucrats from the Ministry of Home Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Defense, Army, Navy and Air Force, the civil and military intelligence agencies, the Police and BDR. In developing such a NSC, the task of coordination and smooth flow of intelligence and information between the military, security and civilians in the second tier should be given utmost importance. A post of a National Security Adviser (NSA) should be created directly under the Prime Minister for this purpose. The NSA should be a very senior retired diplomat or an armed forces officer who should carry the rank of a Minister. In a Government structure already too bloated for reasons of rationality, the NSA could use bureaucrats at the Prime Minister's Office where a Director General with requisite number of officials could provide the NSA administrative support. Issues of national security and intelligence are matters that, despite the need for transparency, cannot be made public knowledge.

Then again, the NSC must not use such a necessity to become an extra-constitutional body. It must be accountable to the Parliament through the Prime Minister.

The inclusion of the Leader of the Opposition should allow bipartisanship in dealing with crucial national issues, something sadly lacking in our system of governance.

The military and intelligence agencies have always been dealing with security and intelligence issues keeping those in charge constitutionally to deal with such issues in darkness in the absence of an established procedure or structure. The BNP and the AL Governments allowed the military and intelligence agencies de facto veto power in security and intelligence issues in manner that was non-transparent and did not always serve the best interest of the nation. A NSC will allow a professional and transparent way of cooperation between the civil, military and intelligence agencies and integration of national security and intelligence issues into defense and foreign policies in the best interest of the country.

The necessity of a NSC cannot be over-emphasized. At the same time, it may not be wise to hurry in through because doubts have arisen in the public mind caused, no doubt, by some over enthusiastic people. Recently, Justice Habibur Rahman, former Chief Adviser, said in a seminar that military's interference in politics cannot benefit the country; his statement created substantial vibes in the public mind. Some politicians have also spoken publicly that the armed forces are seeking a safe exit for themselves given the fact that they have upset the politicians by their drive against widespread corruption in politics and governance. The Army Chief's most recent meeting with senior editors where he has cleared these misgivings categorically is very encouraging. Still doubts linger. Therefore, the imperative of a NSC for Bangladesh notwithstanding, it may be wise for this Government to draw the concept paper of a well thought out NSC and leave it to the elected Government to deliver it as an integral part of executive branch of the Government under the wings of the Prime Minister.