Colombo Telegraph

The Crisis In US-Sri Lanka Relations

By Dayan Jayatilleka –

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

Was it just me or did you notice something very strange in Geneva during the resolution on Sri Lanka? All the speakers who were critical of Sri Lanka focused on post-war sins of commission and omission on the part of the government and the state apparatus— in other words, the present. There was only a passing, ritualistic reference to accountability and reconciliation. However, the mandate of the High Commissioner’s office pertained to the past.

The establishment of a monitoring mission of the Office of the High Commissioner would have addressed the problems that were identified, but by going for an international investigation, the West has put paid for a long time to come, for such an effective measure. Far from an improvement in the situation on the ground, there will be a climate of deterioration.

Decades ago, US policy towards Sri Lanka or any place at all, was drawn up by knowledgeable individuals. A left-of-centre Sri Lankan administration was co-opted and eventually re-shaped by two US Ambassadors with stellar intellectual credentials: Prof Robert Strauss Hupe and Chris Van Hollen Sr. Prof Hupe, the author of the classic ‘Protracted Conflict’ went on to became US Ambassador to NATO. Chris van Hollen became a member of Dr Henry Kissinger’s ‘40 Committee’.

It is not my contention that current and recent US Ambassadors to Colombo are sub-standard. Ambassador Sison and her team are formidably competent diplomats and the crisis in US-Sri Lanka relations owes far more to the quality of Sri Lanka’s representation in the US than US representation in Colombo. It is, however, my contention that those who pushed through the Sri Lanka policy at the Washington end; those who made or endorsed the gear shift from the March 3rd draft resolution to the March 18th draft , are not of the same intellectual quality as the Robert Strauss Hupe, a great Realist strategic thinker, or Chris Van Hollen, a master diplomat (who established such an excellent personal equation with the anti-western Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike that he was suspected of being responsible for the ejection of the leftwing partners of the ruling coalition).

The liberal fundamentalists and human rights hawks on Sri Lanka are, in all probability, not even from within the State Department, but are far more ideological-political elements in the upper reaches of officialdom in the Obama administration.  They belong to a far more ideological or constituency driven type than their deeper thinking predecessors. These are the ‘humanitarian interventionists’; the ideological daughters of Madeleine Albright. It is they who overrode Secretary of Defence Robert Gates’ objections and pushed Obama into the Libyan adventure, which jeopardised US-Russian relations and catalysed the replacement of Medvedev. It is they who would have been most susceptible to moving against Syria and possibly Iran.

My reading is quite similar with respect to British policy. I suspect that the line of the High Commissioner, his staff in Colombo, and probably the FCO in general, was intelligently crafted, as evidenced by Hugo Swire’s nuanced speech at the High level segment in Geneva on March 3rd 2014 in which he mentioned ‘an independent , credible inquiry’ but dropped the term ‘international’. Westminster and Downing Street got into the act after that, taking off from where David Miliband stopped (or more accurately, was stopped) in 2009.

In an earlier time, US scholars on South Asia and Sri Lanka would have been consulted on the effects of an ‘international probe’ on the island’ society, polity and ethnic relations. Obviously none was.

We now have a US-UK driven international probe, which takes place in utterly new terrain: not that of an ongoing conflict (Syria), large scale violence (Colombia), a failed state (Sudan/Darfur), occupied territory (Israel/Palestine) or a closed, almost uniquely grotesque state (North Korea). It takes place in a political context of opposition from the neighbourhood (unlike the unanimous UNHRC resolution on North Korea). It takes place in a country which is not at war, in a state which is not fissured and fractured, against the will of a majority of people who have a very long historical sense of collective identity; is a very old nation. It puts the US in the middle of a protracted political conflict, between two very old ethnic communities (reinforced by old languages and religions), in Asia — and in particular in South Asia. It gets the USA into the entrails of a polarised South Asian society, on one side of what has long been played as a zero sum game.

For all these reasons, any first rate analyst with a solid grounding in the human and social sciences–sociologist, political scientist, cultural anthropologist or historian— would have advised Washington’s policy makers against the direction and thrust of the UNHRC resolution.

Washington does not consider the Sri Lankan state a ‘rogue state’, but it does seem to regard the Rajapaksa regime as a rogue regime (if I may coin a phrase), and is therefore engaging in ‘condition setting’ for regime change. Where the USA has blundered— and it would hardly be the first time it did so in Asia— is that its policy of choice, the international inquiry into the war and accountability by the OHCHR, is a diplomatic-legal drone strike that hits the nationalist sensibilities of the Sinhala majority.

The great George Kennan contended successfully that the containment of Soviet expansionism by the West would over time, cause and enable Russian sensibilities to outgrow and overthrow the Soviet state form and Communist party rule. He would have been aghast at a policy that injured the heart of Great Russian nationalist sensibilities. Henry Kissinger argued for and was the architect of a policy that would enmesh the USSR and China in a web of relationships, drawing them into the world order. In the post-Vietnam period he advocated a US policy for a world order which operated through regional sub-systems and by building up regional ‘influentials’.

No one who was steeped in the great tradition of US foreign policy and strategic thinking (i.e. of Kennan and Kissinger) would have pushed through a resolution in Geneva which revealed an asymmetry of policy perception between Washington and the entirety of South Asia, including ‘strategic partner’ Delhi, on a matter in the South Asian neighbourhood and within India’s sphere of influence.

No student of Kennan, Kissinger or even Brzezinski would have the current policy of the US towards Sri Lanka, which goes against those aims and methods of altering behaviour, because they go against the very grain of the society concerned. If one were to use a different tradition as a point of reference, no US policy maker from Jean Kirkpatrick to Condoleeza Rice with academic roots in political science, would target the regime in a manner that was perceived as an attack on the state as a whole, and the armed forces in particular. No sensible US or UK policy would fail to secure the support or at least the neutrality of the armed forces for the project of transition to a more pluralist and open post-war order. This resolution for an international probe has alienated the armed forces utterly. Switching intellectual traditions once more, no student of Prof Joseph Nye would sacrifice the goodwill toward the US, and US ‘soft power’ in Sri Lanka, by tilting so heavily to an ethnic minority and thereby guaranteeing that Russia, China make durable gains in Sinhala national and political consciousness as true friends and allies.

What then is the bottom line? Hurt, pain and damage to Sri Lanka but also the failure of US policy, i.e. Mutually Assured Damage. The outcome will be the same as in Moby Dick, the great American novel by Herman Melville, about the nature of obsession and a quest driven by it. The Geneva resolution means that the harpoon has been fired and will soon enter the side of the Sri Lankan state. However, where state, nation, language, religion and demographics fuse, the formation that is produced has enormous staying power and tensile strength, as the resistance to thirty years of suicide bombing terrorism and cross border incursion demonstrated. As in the cases of the Indo-Lanka Accord and its IPKF accompaniment, and in a later decade, the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA), ill-timed or ill targeted external pressure however well intentioned, generates irresistible blowback.

In pain, this Moby Dick will take the whaler down with it, or at least inflict heavy damage. The whaling ship in this case is obviously not the United States, but US policy goals and interests in Sri Lanka. The US obviously failed to think through the question of whether the instrument of an international inquiry will serve basic US national interests in Sri Lanka positively or negatively, currently and in the foreseeable future. Insofar as Sri Lanka matters enough for Washington to have spent effort and a bit of diplomatic capital for over three years on it, the prospect should cause some modest degree of concern.

*Dr Dayan Jayatilleka’s latest book, just published in the UK by Palgrave, is The Fall of Global Socialism: A Counter-Narrative from the South, Palgrave Pivot, London, 2014

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