Review: Neighbours in Arms: An American Senator’s Quest for Disarmament in a Nuclear Subcontinent by Larry Pressler
Though the Pressler Amendment was designed to help Pakistan wriggle out of sanctions, its author eventually came to see Pakistan as a threat and India as a friendbooks Updated: Jan 12, 2018 20:18 IST
There was a time Larry Pressler was, simultaneously, the third most admired man in India and the devil incarnate in Pakistan. And both because of an obscure piece of 1985 legislation that became a touchstone of US South Asia policy for a decade.
In 1979, the US government cut off all civilian and military assistance to Pakistan because of a strict nuclear nonproliferation law called the Glenn-Symington Amendment. Worried this left it without any influence in Islamabad, Washington tried to dilute the law. The Reagan administration eventually came up with another amendment, one that allowed the sanctions to be waived if the White House annually certified to the US Congress that Pakistan did not possess a nuclear weapon. As the senator writes, “I was tapped to carry the ball and the Pressler Amendment was born.”
Pressler glides over this, but the truth is his amendment was originally designed to help Pakistan wriggle out of sanctions. By 1990, Islamabad’s strategic standing with the US had become debased with the end of the Cold War. Pakistan’s attempts to acquire an A-bomb also became too obvious for the US to ignore. The certification was issued, sanctions applied and the name “Pressler” came to represent one of the most schizophrenic periods of US policy towards Pakistan.
The amendment’s most famous consequence was to disrupt the sale of F-16 fighters to Pakistan. This so badly poisoned US-Pakistan relations that three US administrations sought to get the law withdrawn. Much of the book is about the annual certification battle and Pressler’s struggle to save the amendment from being repealed. He writes that he was driven by a deep commitment to nuclear nonproliferation and his concerns about the “Islamic bomb”. In the 1990s, it was common for congressional staff to say Pressler was motivated because no other legislation bore his name.
Whatever the reason, Pressler came to see Pakistan as a threat, India as a friend, and attempts to finesse his sanctions as a clear and present danger. The senator is remarkably unclear as to why various White Houses asked him to pass the amendment in the first place, why they sanctioned Pakistan later and why they tried and, in 1995, succeeded in repealing his law.
Among the more interesting sections of this part-biography-part-political history are his battles with the entrenched corporate-political nexus that dominates Washington. He calls this network of interests and lobbyists “the Octopus” and argues it undermined the Pressler Amendment and, eventually, with the help of firms like Citibank unseated him from the Senate.
If his amendment had survived, Pressler believes, “the Indian subcontinent would have been nuclear-free, and we would not have fought the Iraq war.” He accuses Bill Clinton of repealing the Pressler Amendment with an eye to future Islamic donations to the Clinton Foundation. He also calls for a “super alliance” between India and the US. About the last, at least, he provides enough evidence to make a case.