September 2, 2006Foreign Affairs

Sending troops to Lebanon is not in India’s interests

Those with their feet closer to the fire must try to put it out first (especially if their chestnusts are in it too)

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

As if the historical muddle were not enough, India’s Middle East policy is now unnecessarily complicated by the need to secure the support of the Arab world for India’s candidate for the post of UN Secretary-General. Chinmay Gharekhan, India’s diplomatic point man for the Middle East echoed the thinking in New Delhi when he failed to distinguish between the Lebanese people and the Hizbollah. As P R Kumaraswamy points out, the failure to make the Lebanese state accountable for the actions of the Hizbollah weakens India’s position vis-a-vis Pakistan and the Lashkar-e-Taiba.

However, double standards’ in foreign affairs should not be too disturbing in themselves, if they actually served India’s interests. That India is quite against sending more troops to the UNs peacekeeping contingent in Lebanon and is even considering pulling out its existing ones is a correct position. But the reason the Indian government has offered—that India does not want to fight the Hizbollah and therefore the Lebanese people—is troubling. Three years ago, those opposed to India sending troops to support the US-led coalition in Iraq did so primarily on the grounds that it was not India’s war. Strangely, that argument is nowhere to be seen in the current debate over Lebanon, where it would have been appropriate. India should get its troops out of Lebanon because those with their feet much closer to the fire should be the ones that first attempt to douse it. Surely, it is presumptuous for India to be concerned enough to risk the lives of its troops when France—a permanent member of the UN Security Council—thinks otherwise.

Staffing UN peacekeeping contingents is often sought to be justified on the grounds that it helps project India’s impartiality and boosts its international standing. Fiji and Bangladesh, for example, are among the leading contributors to UN peacekeeping forces around the world. They are not considered international powers because of this. And their impartiality, if it indeed results from this account, does not account for much. In fact, impartiality and great power status are usually mutually exclusive. Great powers are seldom impartial. That is one reason why they are great powers in the first place. Apart from some hard currency and a warm fuzzy feeling, India stands to gain little from participating in UN peacekeeping forces.

This is not to say that India must not send its troops to foreign theatres. In fact, The Acorn had argued that India send a contingent to join the American-led coalition in Iraq, soon after the toppling of the Saddam regime. It is within the domain of speculative history to guess what effect that would have had on the war in Iraq. But it would have certainly changed the bilateral relationship between the United States and India. The decision to send troops abroad, therefore, must be linked to the benefits that accrue to India’s interests, rather than misguided Nehruvian notions of international impartiality.

As for achieving recognition as an international great power’, well, it is far more likely that this will come about if India were to use its power to stabilise its own neighbourhood than by sending troops to the beleagured UN contingent in Congo.

Back to Lebanon. The best that can be hoped is that India’s public posturing on the peacekeeping issue is driven by political expediency while its policy itself is guided by realpolitik.

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