The diplomatic skills of John McCain

The Guardian reports today that

A mysterious night-time telephone call brought India and Pakistan, two nuclear armed countries, to the brink of war at the height of the crisis over the Mumbai terror attacks, it was revealed yesterday.

According to the Pakistani authorities, a “threatening” call was made by the Indian government, ostensibly from the foreign minister, Pranab Mukherjee, to Pakistan’s president, Asif Zardari, on Friday November 28, two days after the drama in Mumbai began. India had by then declared that all the militants who had stormed its commercial capital were from Pakistan.

The heated conversation left Zardari believing that India was about to attack his country, reportedly pushing Pakistan’s armed forces to high alert. Given Pakistan’s inferiority in conventional forces, analysts believe it could respond with nuclear weapons to an Indian attack.

Zardari quickly mobilised western leaders in an attempt to avert war, telephoning the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and Britain’s foreign secretary, David Miliband, among others, who in turn frantically called New Delhi. Rice reportedly telephoned Mukherjee in the middle of the night and demanded: “Why have you threatened war?”

For some reason, John McCain went to the region during the 3 days of the attacks and visited first New Delhi, then Lahore.

John McCain, the US senator, arrived in Pakistan at the weekend from New Delhi, where he met the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and told Pakistani journalists that India was ready to order air strikes. At a lunch with senior reporters in Lahore, McCain said Indian officials had told him they had evidence of the involvement of former ISI officers in the planning and execution of the Mumbai assault.

Aren’t we glad he is not in charge of our foreign policy? Not only did he inflame already nervous leaders who might use nuclear weapons, but he did it in public, so that volatile mobs might take up the call for war.

In a short search of English-language Pakistani newspapers the only mention I found was in a very judicious editorial in the Daily Times (Lahore), counseling restraint on the part of the Pakistani government. It says, in part,

Talking informally to a group of Pakistanis in Lahore, the visiting US Senator John McCain said that “there is enough evidence of the involvement of former Inter-Services Intelligence officers in the planning and execution of the Mumbai attack, and if Pakistan does not act, and act fast, to arrest the involved people, India will be left with no option but to conduct aerial operations against select targets in Pakistan”. Since the senator had just arrived from New Delhi, this can be taken as a message from India.

From the tone of the statement one can say that the Senator, possibly along with the rest of the US delegation, wanted Pakistan to respond positively, “after receiving evidence from India”, to the Indian demand that the culprits named by them be arrested. The Senator talked in the future tense about his willingness to persuade India not to embark on military action against Pakistan. He thought America would not be able “do much” if India attacked Pakistan. He was more mindful of the assertion that India’s Mumbai attack was an Indian 9/11 like America’s in 2001, after which the US took the option of attacking Afghanistan.

No one in Pakistan should take this as empty bravado or a dare to the Pakistan government to respond equally truculently. The two countries stand at a critical juncture — much more serious than the standoff of 2001 — and the Pakistani side should refuse to be provoked into reminding the Indians that war will inevitably result from military strikes and that this war might escalate quickly into nuclear war. The scenario is qualitatively different this time. The world is less interested in forcing India to stand down than it was in 2001, and is inclined to put its trust in what the Indians are saying about the nature of the Mumbai attack. But it will definitely try and get Pakistan to respond positively without reaching the point of going to war.

However, before we consider how the world will approach Pakistan, we must take a look at what kind of evidence the Indians will present to Pakistan. Unfortunately, the truth is that India is throwing out hints of aggressive action before concluding the process of putting together all the evidence. The latest finding that domestic Indian terrorists could be involved in the Mumbai attack should change the Indian approach to the matter. Pakistan’s stance has been that if the spoor leads to Pakistan it could only be to the “non-state actors”, and that India should not rule out its own “non state actors”. The latest news from India tends to point to a cooperative approach rather than confrontation.

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