War Stories

The President’s Indian Fantasy

The rash nukes pledge is typical of Bush’s strategic shortsightedness.

George and Laura Bush

It takes a great strategic mind, something like a chess master’s, to think three or four moves ahead in plotting international diplomacy. It would be nice if the Bush administration, now and then, could think one move ahead.

The pattern is hair-raising. In Iraq, Bush & Co. crashed the gates with no plan for what to do after the country crumbled. In North Korea, they called off nuclear talks and waited for the tyrant’s regime to collapse with no plan for how to stop his weapons program if he managed to stay at the helm. In the Palestinian territories, they pushed for elections with no plan for how to react if the wrong side won.

India, where President Bush travels this week, is the latest spot where shortsightedness might land us in trouble. At least in this case, the trip is driven by tangible interests and a real strategic vision, as opposed to a leap and a fantasy. But again, the basic elements of pulling off an ambitious policy—laying the groundwork, pondering the possible consequences, and devising a Plan B in case things don’t go as you’d hoped—seem to have been ignored.

It began last July, when Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh issued a joint statement pledging to “transform” their two countries’ relations—for many decades hostile, even now ambivalent—into a “global partnership.” This was a shrewd geopolitical maneuver. A grand alliance with India—the world’s largest democracy, one of the fastest-growing economies, a natural partner in the war on terrorism, a vast market already oriented toward American goods and services, a counterweight against the prospect of an emergent China—would serve U.S. interests in every way and help regain our standing on a continent where our influence has waned.

But there was a catch, or at least a knot that would have to be untangled. What India wanted out of this deal, above all else, was access to materials for nuclear energy. India faces staggering energy demands over the coming decade, yet it lacks the resources to meet them. The Nonproliferation Treaty obliges the existing nuclear-armed powers—including the United States—to supply such resources to the treaty’s signatories, under specific terms of inspection, as a reward for forgoing nuclear weaponry. However, India already has an arsenal of A-bombs, and it never signed the NPT.

Bush and Singh dealt with this dilemma last summer by simply ignoring it. India, their joint statement declared, would be treated “as a responsible state with advanced nuclear technology” and should therefore be allowed to “acquire the same benefits and advantages as other such states.”

In other words, India would receive the same rewards as countries that had signed the NPT—without actually having to sign it and thus to put up with its restraints. (America’s reward would be that India buys the nuclear materials, as well as a lot of other products, from U.S. companies.) The deal violates the NPT—and a treaty governing the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, an organization of 44 nations that sets rules on importing and exporting nuclear materials.

One could make a case that the trade-off is worth it—that the benefits of a grand alliance with India more than compensate for the costs of exempting India from the NPT’s restraint clauses. India is not going to disarm, anyway; it has agreed, as part of the deal, to open its civilian reactors (though not its military ones) to international inspectors and safeguards; it’s better, one could say, to impose some controls than none at all.

But a few things are worth noting. First, the United States has no authority to grant such an exemption on its own. The NPT is a treaty signed by 187 nations; it is enforced by the International Atomic Energy Agency; and it is, in effect, administered by the five nations that the treaty recognizes as nuclear powers (the United States, Russia, China, Britain, and France). This point is not a legal nicety. If the United States can cut a separate deal with India, what is to prevent China or Russia from doing the same with Pakistan or Iran? If India demands special treatment on the grounds that it’s a stable democracy, what is to keep Japan, Brazil, or Germany from picking up on the precedent?

Second, the India deal would violate not just international agreements but also several U.S. laws regulating the export of nuclear materials.

In other words, an American president who sought to make this deal would, or should, detect a myriad of political actors that might protest or block it—mainly the U.N. Security Council, the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, and the U.S. Congress. Not just as a legal principle but also as a practical consideration, these actors must be notified, cajoled, mollified, or otherwise bargained with if the deal has a chance of coming to life.

The amazing thing is, President Bush just went ahead and made the pledge, without so much as the pretense of consultation—as if all these actors, with their prerogatives over treaties and laws (to say nothing of their concerns for very real dilemmas), didn’t exist.

In fact, according to a fascinating article by Carla Anne Robbins and John Larkin in today’s Wall Street Journal, last April Bush privately told India’s foreign minister that Washington would sell nuclear technology to India, even while his own top advisers were “far from certain” that they could find a way to end-run the NPT.

Maybe Bush had grown accustomed to plowing over international treaties when they didn’t suit his wishes. No doubt he figured Congress could be prodded into passing whatever laws he demanded in the name of national security.

But that was then. Two things have changed in the months since. First, the Republican Congress—buffeted not only by Bush’s plummeting popularity but also by his diminished credibility on security matters in the wake of the Dubai Ports controversy—may not be as accommodating on Indian nukes as it once might have been.

Second, as Bush adjusted to his new position by setting some restrictions on the deal, the highly nationalistic Indian parliament rebelled by demanding no strings whatever. Bush wants India to let the IAEA inspect all 17 of its currently unmonitored civilian reactors; the Indian government, responding to its own domestic pressures, has offered inspection of just four.

Maybe Bush will reach a compromise with India this week—in which case he’ll then have the rest of the world to contend with. Or maybe he won’t make the deal—in which case the prospect of a global partnership might collapse before it’s been born. It was probably a mistake to make the nuclear promise—which impinges on so many other countries’ interests—the deal’s centerpiece. Or, if that was inevitable, it was definitely a mistake to let the deal go forward without bringing any of these other countries in on the discussion. It was a mistake not to think even one move ahead.