July 25, 2020
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Posting An Untruth

'Washington Post' admits its front page story about President Clinton averting an Indo-Pak war was a White House plant

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Posting An Untruth
On July 26, those dealing with and reporting on South Asian affairs in Washington were taken aback by a front-page story in the Washington Post which claimed that President Clinton's personal mediation averted a full-scale Indo-Pak war (perhaps even a nuclear conflict). Quoting unnamed US administration officials, the report said US spy-satellites had shown India preparing to launch an all-out attack over the LoC and the administration feared things might escalate into a nuclear war were Pakistan forced to play the nuclear card if pushed into a corner.

In New Delhi, a foreign ministry spokesman denied the claims to enlarge the conflict, and described them as 'ill-conceived and unfounded'. The Pakistan army, he asserted, had assumed aggressive postures all along the LoC and the international border, thereby making it imperative for the Indian forces to take the 'required defensive measures, including remaining in a state of alert'. Moreover, as observers point out, official spokesmen of the president, the state department and the Pentagon consistently held that India had acted with restraint despite grave provocation.

Outlook's enquiries in Washington have revealed that the story came out of the White House and that most state department officials (who actually deal with policy on a day-to-day basis) are too prudent to make such claims. In fact, the state department has tried to distance itself from the article.

It's also within the realm of possibility for certain White House officials to go out on a limb and make the kind of exaggerated claims made in the Post article, giving Clinton full credit for averting war. Not only would this prove his continued mastery over foreign affairs but it would also enhance his reputation as peacemaker and his so-called legacy (which he has often spoken about) at a time when other peace plans, such as the Irish peace accord, are deteriorating.

The interesting aspect of the Post story is that the daily admitted it was a plant and that the administration sought it out. It said: 'White House officials were eager to tell the story of Clinton's involvement in defusing the crisis and contacted a Washington Post reporter to offer interviews on the subject.' This information is significant because neither the Post nor the New York Times normally admit to administration officials calling them with such stories. Nor is the correspondent who wrote the piece, John Lancaster, considered a South Asia expert.

In reaction to the Post article which the Indian embassy described as 'far-fetched', the state department issued a 'guidance'. Such guidances are given only to presspersons who specifically ask for it; they aren't posted on the website or offered unsolicited. The guidance said: 'During the Kargil crisis we frequently expressed our concern that the fighting could spread and called upon India and Pakistan to exercise restraint. We were aware that both countries were taking what we viewed as contingency steps in order to be prepared in the event that hostilities did spread beyond Kargil. We were pleased that both countries did, in fact, display restraint, leading to de-escalation of the crisis and we hope soon to its final resolution. The US and other countries tried to play a constructive role in urging India and Pakistan to resolve the Kargil crisis. We were not however mediators. The hard work was done and the hard decisions were made by leaders of the two countries.'

When asked what he thought of the article, Stephen P. Cohen of the Brookings Institution said it was 'unprofessional' and 'distasteful' for the US to be 'boasting about its role', especially when its details were not known. The US had made a similar claim in '90 about persuading India and Pakistan to withdraw from the brink of war, a feat supposedly achieved by the cia's Bob Gates and documented by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker. Strangely, says Cohen, Gates bragged about his feat on various occasions but didn't mention it in his book.

Cohen adds: 'I don't know whether what the US said or did made a big difference or even if sending the Indian navy outside Karachi had some influence on what happened. It was a limited victory for Pakistan and a limited victory for India. It was also a limited defeat for Pakistan and a limited defeat for India. Both sides won and both sides lost.' As far as the US role was concerned, he believes that the Post story 'exaggerated the nature of the conflict in order to exaggerate the importance of the US role'.

Meanwhile, assistant secretary of state Karl Inderfurth, briefing the press on July 28, addressed the question of whether the Post story was an overstatement or even a gross exaggeration. Replied he: 'Some will use language that will go beyond events as we saw them to make it a more interesting story.' The US, he said, 'played a useful... role in this crisis' but it was the 'parties concerned that brought the crisis to a conclusion...despite some articles written to overstate the case.' And there rests the case.

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