Larry Pressler’s Neighbours in Arms: An American Senator’s Quest for Disarmament in a Nuclear Subcontinent could not have come at a worse time. His publication opens up wounds of the 1990s, which had barely healed at the beginning of the century. For South Asia’s watchers, this book is yet another narrative that frames Pakistan as a crafty Cold War ally that outfoxed a supposedly naïve and innocent America in pursuit of its national security interests, at the cost of American taxpayers.
Pakistan has an alternative history: the United States is a fickle ally that partners Pakistan only when US security interests demand, abandons it in favour of its nemesis India, and is fundamentally opposed to Pakistani nuclear weapons which Pakistan considers central to its national security and state survival. Written at the behest and prodding of the editor of Penguin Random House, India, Pressler’s book receives acknowledgements, accolades and eloquent praise in India. The author admits his book is not peer-reviewed and is primarily addressed to readers in India. His open bias, tone and tenor should not surprise Pakistani readers, while American readers may be astonished at the gullibility of the barely known senator from South Dakota, who is a household villain in Pakistan and a great hero in India.
Pressler builds his narrative in the shadow of the current downturn in Pakistan-US relations. He is bitter, his ego badly hurt and his narration rooted in the delusional belief that the Pressler Amendment would have saved the world from an impending nuclear catastrophe. He blames his personal political doom on the chicanery of the “rogue and dishonest” Pakistan and his country’s greedy and immoral “Octopus” — a complex web of American military-, industrial-, congressional- and scientific-state backed by special interest groups comprising financiers, bankers and the bureaucratic institution.
A former US Senator’s account of Pakistan’s nuclear programme and his own role is self-serving and riddled with obvious errors of omission and commission
The power of the ‘Octopus’, so believes the author, defines American national security interests and tramples on constitutional and moral principles to advance its corporate interests. Pressler is convinced that this formidable giant allowed South Asia to become nuclear, made the Pressler Amendment — his sole political legacy — irrelevant and “nailed his political coffin shut.”
Pressler is seemingly naïve in understanding the vicissitudes of statecraft in determining national interest. It is hard to comprehend that the senator is unaware of the inter-state agency processes in a government’s decision-making and conduct of international diplomacy. His simplified generalisations of complex regional security issues would leave students of history and security studies perplexed. He loathes the double standards of his own country’s policy, but is least embarrassed in his own contradictions and double-speak when applying the same standards to India. He minces no words in expressing his predisposition: “I strongly believe we need to do more to promote India’s interest worldwide ... it is a natural economic and geopolitical ally for the future. We should decisively choose India ... We must downgrade Pakistan and treat it as it is: an irresponsible, dishonest, rogue state.”
The worthy senator presents himself as a principled, moral legislator who waged a sole crusade against the Pakistani nuclear programme and a stalwart who struggled to prevent the emergence of an “Islamic nuclear confederation” in South, Central and West Asia. He is furious that Pakistan, through “blackmail”, frustrated his noble objective of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. Short of using four-letter words, Pressler employs every possible crude adjective to demonise Pakistan and its leaders who “lie through their teeth”, and finally recommends that Pakistan must be “treated like North Korea” and declared a “terrorist state.”
Senator Pressler’s political fortune took an abrupt turn in 1985 when the US president at the time, Ronald Reagan, came under pressure from certain Democrats — Stephen Solarz, Alan Cranston and John Glenn — who moved legislations that threatened to cut off aid and military supplies to Pakistan at a time when it was a front-line state in the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Reagan asked fellow Republican Pressler — who had some experience in non-proliferation and arms control — to lead in drafting an amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which would enable the US president to certify that “Pakistan does not possess a nuclear explosive device”, which would then enable sale or transfer of “military equipment or technology” to Pakistan for the fiscal year.
This annual certification requirement, known as the Pressler Amendment to the US Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (Section 620E) hung like the sword of Damocles over Pakistan. Until 1989, military and economic aid continued to be given to Pakistan; in 1990, then president George Bush declined to certify and the Pressler law was enforced. By implication, all forms of military, technological and economic cooperation with Pakistan came to a standstill, causing Pakistan-US relations to nosedive. Generations born since then only remember that America abandoned Pakistan, failed to deliver the F-16 aircraft that Pakistan had paid for and pressured Pakistan to “cap and rollback” its nuclear programme.
For Pressler, this was the crowning achievement of his political career; for the US administration it took a decade to overcome the negative fallout from this development. Rather ironically, it proved counterproductive to the very cause of non-proliferation that Senator Pressler had purportedly championed throughout his career.
The author of Neighbours in Arms is disingenuous; he glosses over important history. In his narrative, there is no place to register the twin impact of India’s role in Pakistan’s dismemberment in 1971 and its 1974 nuclear test on Pakistan’s national security. Pressler’s angst with the ‘Octopus’ fails to record the intense pressure from American presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter’s administrations to dissuade Pakistan from developing its own nuclear weapons capability following India’s nuclear provocation. He omits mentioning how the US succeeded in persuading France, Canada and Germany to walk out of their existing nuclear agreements with Pakistan. Further, Pakistan’s defiance and subsequent reliance on the Abdul Qadeer Khan (AQK) nuclear network were a direct consequence of Western efforts to derail the Pakistani quest for nuclear parity with India. Were it not for the paradigm shift overnight after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, we might have had an alternative history.
The Reagan-Zia agreement of 1981 is publicly known and scholars draw parallels of it with Richard Nixon’s deal of 1969 with former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir. In both cases, larger US national interest trumped nuclear concerns regarding Israel and Pakistan — both non-signatories of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). In 1981, the Reagan administration agreed to a comprehensive deal with Pakistan — skilfully negotiated by the then Minister of Foreign Affairs Agha Shahi and then Director General Military Intelligence Gen K.M. Arif — that restored the fractured Pakistan-US strategic alliance.
At the time, Pakistan was under two layers of US sanctions: the first was enforced following the military takeover in 1977 that overthrew Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s civil government; the second was when the Carter administration placed nuclear sanctions on Pakistan under the 1976 Symington Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act, 1961. Contrary to Pressler’s assertions, Reagan did not give Pakistan a free hand to pursue its nuclear ambitions. Instead, a four-point agreement was reached under which Pakistan would only produce low enriched uranium (LEU) for civil nuclear application, would not machine the existing highly enriched uranium (HEU) into weapon cores for military purposes, would not transfer any nuclear material or knowledge to any other state or entity and would not conduct nuclear explosive tests (hot tests). Although there was no agreed verifiable mechanism, Gen Ziaul Haq pledged with Reagan not to embarrass the US. Pakistan, however, did embarrass itself through loose talk and some glib-tongued officials. (For more details, please refer to chapter 11 in my book Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb.)
At the time the Pressler Amendment was applied, the US’s Cold War allies shared the fruits of victory while Islamabad braced to suffer the consequences of its role in the Afghan War. It was not until the morning of Sept 11, 2001, that the US felt the tragic blowback of its own policy. The combined effect of Pressler’s nuclear sanctions and America’s strategic abandonment from South Asia left the US with no leverage or influence around Pakistan’s 1998 nuclear tests. In Pressler’s world, however, none of these factors have any context, much less a mention.
The Pressler Amendment became irrelevant after the shocking events of 9/11, when new security exigencies once again made Pakistan a front-line state, but the new honeymoon did not last long. The saga surrounding the busting of the AQK network in 2003 put Pakistan into the veritable doghouse; meanwhile the US rewarded India with an exceptional nuclear deal, now legislated as the Henry J. Hyde United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act — aka the Hyde Act — in 2008. Since then, Pakistan-US relations have been riddled with irretrievable friction.
As the one who campaigned against the spread of nuclear weapons, Pressler skilfully avoids the implications of the US-India nuclear deal on the credibility of US non-proliferation stewardship. He knows well that the deal exempts India’s military nuclear programmes from safeguards, frees up India’s domestic uranium entirely for military programmes and sets a precedence for other nuclear powers to do the same to their respective allies. The US has discriminated the nuclear world order between “good proliferators” and “bad proliferators.” In the long sweep of history, the US laws of exceptionalism — the Pressler Amendment and the Hyde Act — together would go down as the twin laws that contributed to the debilitating and possibly destabilising arms race in South Asia.
The reviewer is a professor at the US Naval Postgraduate School and author of Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb
Neighbours in Arms: An
American Senator’s Quest
for Disarmament in a
By Larry Pressler
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 21st, 2018