In his memoir Neighbours in Arms, the former U.S. senator, Larry Pressler, advances a simple theme: ‘India’s democratic government [and] location … make it a natural … geopolitical ally. We should decisively choose India … We must downgrade Pakistan and treat it as it is: an irresponsible, dishonest, rogue state’ (pp. 53–54). His book focuses on his legislative efforts in the eighties and Pressler claims that if a law bearing his name—the Pressler Amendment—had been enforced, Pakistan ‘would have been forced to shut down its [nuclear weapons] programme’ (p. 198). While Pressler’s viewpoint may resonate with sections of the Indian security establishment, these positions—like Pressler’s book—are naive and gloss over historical facts.
The interesting parts of Pressler’s book are unrelated to arms control and comprise Pressler’s description of the influence of lobbyists and money in the U.S. government—a synergy that he calls the ‘Octopus’.
The history of the Pressler amendment is instructive. In the eighties, the U.S. government wanted to attack the Soviet Union by channelling aid to Islamic militants in Afghanistan through Pakistan. But existing U.S. law prohibited military assistance to any country that was pursuing nuclear weapons. So, in 1981, the U.S. Congress allowed the President to waive this law.
Under increasing public pressure, in 1984, the U.S. Senators Cranston and Glenn proposed an amendment that would require the President to certify that Pakistan neither possessed a nuclear explosive, and nor was it developing or acquiring goods to make such a device. The amendment was unanimously approved in the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee but then the Reagan administration informed the Committee that this text would actually stop aid to Pakistan.1 So, the Committee approved a new amendment, later called the Pressler Amendment, which only required the President to certify that Pakistan did not ‘possess a nuclear explosive device’, and provide an assurance that aid would ‘reduce significantly the risk that Pakistan will possess a nuclear explosive device’.
This ambiguous language allowed the administration to continue military aid on the pretext that while Pakistan was developing nuclear weapons, it did not actually possess a bomb. Moreover, the administration could argue that conventional military aid would assuage Pakistani security concerns and thereby reduce the risk that Pakistan would develop a bomb.
Pressler reviews this history (pp. 127-128) but conveniently omits to mention that his amendment was a deliberately weak law that was designed to allow the continuation of military aid to Pakistan. His explanation that the Pressler amendment was chosen over the Glenn-Cranston Amendment because the ‘Republican Party … wanted a Republican name on the amendment’ (p. 128) is disingenuous and misleading. Indeed, if Pressler had admitted the truth at this point in his book, it would have undermined a large part of his narrative, where he feigns surprise at the fact that U.S. military aid to Pakistan continued after the Pressler Amendment.
Pressler is right that, in this period, the Pentagon was ‘actually supporting Pakistan in getting nuclear weapons’ (p. 125). The problem with Pressler’s analysis is that he tacitly approves of the acquisition of the bomb by ‘good countries (like the United States, Israel and India), and only disapproves of nuclear weapons when they are acquired by ‘bad’ countries like Pakistan.
Pressler seems puzzled that the Pakistani establishment does not share this outlook. And so he simply denies that the Indian nuclear programme could have been a factor that led Pakistan to acquire weapons of its own (p. 176).
Pressler is also wrong when he claims that the Indian nuclear programme ‘was built without US taxpayer assistance’ (p. 175). In fact, the United States initially supported the Indian weapons programme, in an attempt to use India as a bulwark against China. The fuel for the 1974 Indian nuclear explosion came from a research reactor called CIRUS (Canadian Indian Reactor, U.S.) which was built with U.S. assistance. Therefore, any fair analysis must acknowledge that the nuclear race in South Asia was started by the actions of India and the United States, and not those of Pakistan.
And, while Pressler claims to have been a ‘nuclear non-proliferation “purist”’, he has nothing to say about his own country’s abdication of its commitments under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that require it to pursue ‘good faith’ negotiations on complete nuclear disarmament.
Pressler’s analysis of the Octopus, ‘the great-grandchild of the “military-industrial complex”’ (p. 7), is more interesting. The Octopus takes advantage of the ‘revolving door’ where ‘people frequently shuffle … between government jobs and lobbying firms’ allowing former government officials to ‘make a lot of money’ (p. 21). And he provides biting examples of the hypocrisy of former officials as they surrender to the charms of the private sector.
But in promoting civil nuclear cooperation between India and the U.S., Pressler is also working for the Octopus. Pressler claims that nuclear energy is ‘one of the cheapest’ sources of energy (p. 44) and footnotes this surprising claim with a link to a nuclear industry source that doesn’t even discuss the cost of nuclear electricity. In fact, one major reason that no American company has managed to sell a reactor in India is that the cost of electricity from American reactors may be as high as Rs. 25 per unit2—between five to ten times higher than competing sources of power.
Pressler also raises the question of nuclear liability. In 2010, under pressure from the United States, India passed a law to largely indemnify multinational nuclear suppliers in the event of a nuclear accident. This law capped the total compensation available for victims, and made the public sector Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL) responsible for paying this compensation. For many outside the nuclear industry, this appeared to be a complete surrender to U.S. nuclear suppliers. However, the law failed to satisfy them because it left open a small window allowing them to be sued by the NPCIL, if the accident was caused by supplier error.
Pressler claims that suppliers are concerned about liability because ‘the Bhopal Gas Tragedy frightened U.S corporations’ and ‘top executives are … hesitant, as they know that the Union Carbide chief executive officer endured death threats … after the Bhopal disaster’ (p. 57). But while Pressler is sympathetic to the Union Carbide CEO, a fugitive from the Indian justice system, who lived out the rest of his life in luxury in the United States, he seems unconcerned about the tens of thousands of Indian victims of Bhopal—many of whom continue to suffer from the aftermath of the disaster.
Pressler’s suggestion that India should further weaken its law to placate U.S. suppliers makes no sense. Instead Indian courts should strike down the Indian liability law and subject U.S. nuclear suppliers to the ‘absolute liability’ judgment of the Supreme Court, passed after Bhopal in 1985, that made any enterprise engaged in a hazardous activity ‘strictly and absolutely liable to compensate all those who are affected’ by an accident.
Pressler intersperses his political analysis with personal memoirs. But even here, he portrays himself as more progressive than he really was. For example, in 1991, he proudly explained that he had ‘led’ the fight against imposing sanctions on apartheid South Africa. And he supported the first Gulf war, even after openly admitting that ‘we fought this war over oil.’3
Pressler’s book is primarily an exercise in painting his legacy in a favourable light. It contains some useful parts, but it should be read with caution and a large grain of salt.
Suvrat Raju, a physicist with the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, is a member of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, founded by Achin Vanaik.
1 Paul Leventhal, Testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, 2 October 1990. Available at: http://www.nci.org/t/t10290.htm (accessed 7 Feb 2018).
2 Suvrat Raju, ‘The Cost of Nuclear Diplomacy’, The Hindu, 20 June 2016. (Available at: http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/The-cost-of-nuclear-diplomacy/article14432315.ece)
3 Larry Pressler, ‘Reaction to the Persial Gulf War Cease-Fire’, Interview with C-Span, 28 February 1991. Available at: https://www.c-span.org/video/?16845-1/reaction-persian-gulf-war-cease-fire&start=969 (accessed 7 February 2018)