December 26, 2001


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Admiral (retd) J G Nadkarni

The limits of power

As the rhetoric is stepped up and India and Pakistan practise the art of brinkmanship, leaders of both countries may, with advantage, like to bone up on their history during this festive season. There they may find a number of lessons on a subject that should be mandatory learning for any nation's top leaders -- the limits of power.

The end of the Cold War left the United States in a position of preponderance unsurpassed in world history. It has the world's largest and most prosperous economy, and its military forces are today the most advanced and powerful in the world. The disintegration of the Soviet Union left it without a major rival, yet the United States continues to spend more on defence than the next five largest military powers combined.

In today's unipolar world, Americans could hardly ask for a better position in international relations. Yet this extraordinary position of power does not guarantee that the United States can achieve whatever it wants in its foreign policy. Wherever one looks, in fact, there is abundant evidence of the limits of US power.

Despite repeated US intervention in the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process remains stagnated and the violence, unabated. In Iraq, neither eight years of crippling economic sanctions nor a frequent series of US air strikes have been able to remove Saddam Hussein from power. If the United States is so powerful, then why does it not get its way more often?

The inability of the United States to get its way on every issue should not be surprising, because that is not how power works in the international system. Being bigger and stronger certainly gives a state more influence. Yet even the most powerful state in the world will not get its way on every issue and it may sometimes find itself thwarted at every turn. A national leader should be fully aware of the capabilities and limitations of all facets of his nation's power, political, diplomatic and military. A wise leader will remain within the limits and exploit power to the best advantage. A foolish leader, who does not understand power, will eventually bring his nation to grief and embarrassment.

Even astute and otherwise sensible leaders have from time to time overestimated their nation's capabilities, resulting in inevitable disasters. A confident John Kennedy, believing in America's military power to do anything, embarked on the Bay of Pigs invasion to unseat Fidel Castro. The result was a rout of the invading forces and acute embarrassment for the US.

The US has been trying to overthrow Castro for 40 years since then. Even the most powerful state in the world will not get its way on every issue and it may sometimes find itself thwarted at every turn.

The United States learnt its lessons on the use of power only after the Vietnam War. It was a lesson that cost the nation the lives of more than 60,000 soldiers and one US president a certain second term.

The trauma of Vietnam lives on, but the lesson that national power is not unlimited has been learnt well. Today the Unites States chooses its adversaries carefully. A Grenada, Panama or Haiti and, more recently, Afghanistan.

The Soviet Union learnt its lessons on power during the Cuban missile crisis. A cocky Khrushchev, not understanding the limits of Soviet power, decided to up the ante by planting missiles in close proximity of the United States, only to be forced to back down in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation later on.

India's leaders do not have to look at US or world history for their enlightenment. Our own history will do, and not too far in the past at that. Let us turn the pages back some 40 years.

In 1962 the situation was somewhat similar to that obtaining today. It was suddenly discovered that the Chinese had quietly been occupying parts of Indian territory in Aksai Chin and along the northern border. There was a furore in Parliament and jingoism in the streets. A martinet general, with little experience of war, convinced the leaders that the Indian Army was more than a match for the Chinese. Prime Minster Nehru became a victim of his own rhetoric and public pressure. He directed the Indian Army to "throw the Chinese out". The rest, of course, is history. Forty years later the Chinese are firmly entrenched on Indian land, but there is no talk of throwing them out.

Some 25 years after that incident, another audacious general influenced a young Rajiv Gandhi to deploy Indian troops in Sri Lanka. "Sir, we'll take out this lungi-clad rabble in a couple of weeks" was his boast. After three years and 2,500 casualties, India's army had to withdraw, humiliated and without achieving anything for its trouble. The lungi-clad rabble is still there 10 years later.

Compare this with 1971. Indira Gandhi's Cabinet wanted to go to war in the summer of 1971. A wise General Maneckshaw, who obviously knew the limitations of his armed forces, refused to be browbeaten by the political leadership. He demanded and got six months to organise his forces, to make up the deficiencies in weapons and equipment, and to deploy his divisions. The three services had sufficient time to coordinate their plans for an attack at a time and place of their choice.

Fortunately for India, the nation is today blessed with astute military leaders in the mould of the Field Marshall. Retired General Malik's call for toning down the rhetoric and Army chief General S Padmanabhan's retort that he will not be stampeded into foolish action are extremely reassuring. Rhetoric may be suitable for public consumption and for winning an election, but it cannot be a substitute for cold appraisal and a sensible appreciation of the situation.

Whatever our immediate reactions to the attack on India's sovereignty on December 13, taking stock of our capabilities vis-a-vis Pakistan will indicate that there are limits to our military power. At present at least the benefits of diplomatic options far outweigh impulsive and tit-for-tat military action.

This is not to say that the military option should be discarded for ever. A time may eventually come when military action becomes inevitable. However, it should be used with full understanding of its limitations and consequences and a realisation of what such action will achieve.

Unfortunately, in the past Indo-Pak relations have had a dynamics of their own. They appear to have the inevitability of a Greek tragedy. Emotionally charged speeches have whipped up a war and revenge hysteria in both countries. It is to be hoped that a cool appraisal of their respective capabilities, which may lead to a retreat from the precipice, will take place before and not after the two countries lie exhausted by war, their economies in ruin, but their "honour" restored.

Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)

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