Larry Pressler remains a diehard Indian lover and admirer. He has visited the country several times in the past decades but doesn’t seem to get tired of it as its multiple cultures, religions and languages continue to fascinate him. The ‘Pressler Amendment’ making a US Presidential declaration mandatory that Pakistan was not pursing a clandestine nuclear weapons’ programme before any arms transaction between the two countries could take place, had made him a household name in the sub-continent. Though many in India love to see him as “Delhi’s man in Washington,’ the 75-year Republican politician and former senator from South Dakota plead his commitment and mission is to the cause of nuclear non-proliferation. Currently in India to promote his book, Neighbours in Arms: An American Senator’s quest for Disarmament in a Nuclear Subcontinent– that will take him to Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai-- he took time off from his busy and hectic schedule to speak to Pranay Sharma. Excerpts from the interview:
You are seen here in Delhi as “India’s man in the United States,’ is that a correct description?
No, I don’t think so. I worked on nuclear non-proliferation worldwide and at that time we had the India-Pakistan focus. But I love India and come here a lot. It’s a great country, there are so many different people; so many different religions who live together. I am great admirer of the country and love coming back here.
On the nuclear issue, you seem to be more concerned about Pakistan than India. What is the reason?
That is because Pakistan is very dangerous and it is now developing nuclear tactical weapons, which is perhaps under the command of a one-star general. Since the North Korea issue there seem to have been some sort of renaissance in the United States on nuclear weapons. Pakistan is not a threat to the US but it is to India.
Many experts see the Pakistani army as a disciplined force and feel the command and control structure of their strategic weapons are well defined….
I hope so. But in my experience of dealing with Pakistan I and my partner, the Democrat Senator, John Glenn, have been lied to, the Congress was lied to and I think even President George H. W. Bush felt he had been lied to by Pakistan. It was difficult for us at that time because the military establishment was so concerned at that it felt it can get Pakistan to help us in Afghanistan but in my opinion Pakistan never really did much for us. So the whole thing is a bundle of contradiction.
But why did a string of US presidents not share your assessment. Things only changed after George W. Bush came in support of India during the nuclear deal but before that American support was always for Pakistan?
Yes, I think there is some truth there. In the old days and this was true till the 1980s that their generals and our generals were very powerful and the military-industrial state is very powerful—some of which I point out in my book. But some of it was out of necessity. If the Pentagon wanted to make a deal they could go to Pakistan and make it with one person, who usually was a general. But in New Delhi they will have to see the prime minister, the Lok Sabha; the media etc. The same kind of system you have in Washington where you have to work through your way to get your message across. But even at that time a lot of Indian parliamentarians and others that we would meet were pro-Russian. When President Nixon came here and met Indira Gandhi and the two did not get on very well. The point is at that time all this was all very new thing this warm, close relationship and government to government relationship was all very chilly.
According to you India enjoys more “weight” than Pakistan with President Donald Trump. What has changed so drastically?
I think we are in a retreat from trying to run the world as we have had so many setbacks and we also have a serious, internal budgetary problem that is bothering a lot of us. I think you will see the US receding in its desires to run the world and I would like to see India expand and increase its activities. So many things are developing in the way the US government now looks at Asia…
How reliable is President Trump?
He changes 180 degrees a lot of things he advocated in his campaign when he comes up to it. He has put a pretty sound administration though. On paper the resume of people he has appointed are pretty good. Some could argue that he has appointed one of the most competent cabinets ever with less political hacks in it and taking a businessman’s approach to it. He seems to delegate very well. On the other hand, he had very tense relations with the Attorney General who was his best friend and that shows he is quite unpredictable. But he may turn out to be a pretty good president contrary to his self-inflicting wounds and tweets.
So he continues to have support in sections in the US?
In the “fly-over” country—that part of the US where I come from and where people have an inferiority complex as they see most flights don’t stop there but head straight for San Francisco-- they like him. That is where you get to see the Trump phenomenon but that is also a step towards isolation and it will affect India and also Pakistan. But the North Korea issue has scared us on the nuclear issue. My mission here is to wake people up to say that probably Pakistan is more dangerous.
Is the focus back on the nuclear issue?
Yes, and part of my mission is to address this growing problem and convince people that we must go with India and have joint exercises or whatever it takes to get the Pakistanis to back down. Reports in Indian media suggest that Pakistan has already started backing down a little.
How do you see President Trump’s Afghan policy? It has sparked off a lot of debates and speculations in this part of the world and perhaps, also elsewhere?
I am not in agreement with President Trump’s policy. I am an actual Vietnam veteran, probably, the few you will ever meet. But I am against ‘boots on the ground’ so to speak from the United States point of view. And the reason I am because you cannot send an young man with a rifle, with no training in diplomacy and one who doesn’t speak the language of that country ande expect him to make friends. It doesn’t work. I am not a peacenik or an isolationist but I was against the Iraq war and the Afghan war as we fight it. I think Trump is falling into a trap. He is making sounds of sending more troops to Afghanistan. I think the best thing we could is to depart from Afghanistan.
You have spoken quite candidly about the military-industrial complex and the various lobbying firms and groups that you called the ‘Octopus’ and its power in influencing US foreign policy. How effective are they?
In most countries an ambassador will be able to hire a lobbying firm to push his country’s agenda. But one of the first things that ambassadors serving in the US do is to hire some influential law firms or lobbying firms to gain access to opinion makers. This is the only country where you have to do this and our ‘Octopus’ is perhaps the worst. But on the other hand I would say that we do need the military-industrial state to some extent. But ours has gotten way too strong. So the genius is to find a balance in public administration. But it is very difficult because your public servants or the Congressmen are supposed to make the decisions in the interest of their constituents and the foreign policy. A lot of this can be improved by involving university things or medicals things or agriculture. But what has happened is that mostly it has been concentrated on arms sale.
So if the US were to lose a few big arms contracts in India will the relations suffer?
Yes, the Octopus will get upset and react.
How will they react?
I am very worried how they might react. It might not be in the best public interest. We seem to be in a swamp, which President Trump wants to drain and that is how people feel about Washington—this whole money thing. This is what drives good, young people out of politics. It also results in bad public policy or public administration or bad foreign policy. And that could endanger our relation with India. We have to keep the Octopus fed.