September 19, 2008

Mission Sorta Accomplished

This article originally appeared in The Indian Express on September 19, 2008.

Congressional approval of the 123 Agreement remains the last step needed to enable bilateral civilian nuclear commerce between the United States and India, but the majority of work on the nuclear deal can be considered done following the unanimous waiver granted by the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The agreement will be linked closely with both Manmohan Singh and George W. Bush, two leaders who exerted considerable will and effort to see this deal through despite significant political hurdles in both their countries, as well as vociferous objections from others. For both, the nuclear deal will likely be seen as a major part of their legacies.

For Bush, the nuclear deal with India could well prove the most significant foreign policy success of his eight year tenure as president. Many of his countrymen would of course disagree, seeing the deal as a disaster for international non-proliferation efforts. Yet the Bush administration has few foreign policies that can be judged unqualified successes.

Bush's 2003 plan to substantially increase resources to tackling global HIV/AIDS is sometimes cited, but even that scheme has drawn its critics. The president has made other attempts that could in time be considered successes, including the creation of an Africa Command for the US military, consolidating relationships with several East Asian powers, the management of potentially adversarial relations with Russia and China, and his engagements with Libya and North Korea. Some Bush supporters, perhaps over-optimistically, believe that Iraq and Afghanistan could be considered major achievements. Yet most of these scenarios remain hypothetical, while other endeavours, such as the opening to Libya, are unlikely to have a global impact.

The nuclear deal represents a rather unlikely product of a George W. Bush administration, one that few would have predicted at the start of his presidency almost eight years ago. When he was first running for president, Bush was seen as something of a foreign policy novice, his most significant experience to date being interactions with Mexico as governor of Texas. When asked by a journalist to name several world leaders - including the Prime Minister of India - as a presidential candidate in 1999, Bush proved famously ignorant. Yet according to his close adviser Robert Blackwill, Bush long held India in high regard, impressed by "a billion people in a functioning democracy".

When Bush was inaugurated president in January 2001, domestic policy was widely expected to take precedence over foreign engagement or adventurism in his administration's agenda. The United States was in what was then seen as an unstable economic period , and his administration was anticipated as "the CEO presidency", with Bush, the first American president with an MBA , at its helm.

It took the 9/11 attacks to focus the Bush presidency on foreign policy issues, and South Asia immediately came into the spotlight. Forced to work with a Pakistan seen as sympathetic to al Qaeda's Taliban hosts in Afghanistan, Bush chose to pursue a strategy of dehyphenation on the subcontinent. This effectively diluted a forty-year-old strategic triangle between the United States, India and Pakistan, so that American bilateral relations with each state had minimal effects on its relations with the other, and on ties between the two South Asian nations. This was deemed a risky strategy at the time, but it appears to have paid dividends.

In essence, the strategy involved treating India and Pakistan - both nuclear pariahs - on their own merits. Bush mentioned this difference explicitly standing next to General Musharraf in March 2006. "We discussed a civilian nuclear program," he revealed, "and I explained that Pakistan and India are different countries with different needs and different histories. So, as we proceed forward, our strategy will take into effect those well-known differences."

By the end of the next 28 months - during which US law was amended, a bilateral 123 Agreement was negotiated, and political opposition in New Delhi was finally overcome - Bush had evidently realised that the nuclear deal would be a significant element of his legacy as president. In late July, after the parliamentary trust vote in Delhi, Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley met with other senior US officials to discuss the nuclear deal as it entered the crucial multilateral stage. At the meeting, Bush agreed to pull out all the stops to get the deal through. Following unexpected Chinese opposition at the Nuclear Suppliers Group plenary meeting in Vienna, it reportedly took a phone call from Bush to Hu Jintao to ensure an eventual waiver.

With the nuclear deal now requiring only Congressional approval to be brought to fruition, Bush's contribution to furthering the US-India relationship and bringing India in from the nuclear cold should be acknowledged. Perhaps now he can finally dust off and unfurl his "mission accomplished" banner without an undue sense of irony.