Rethinking India

PRESIDENT BUSH ARRIVES in India today to pursue one of his longtime foreign policy objectives: bringing the United States and India closer. It's a worthy goal. India is the world's largest democracy, and its economy is growing. And although the White House doesn't want to draw too much attention to old-school realpolitik, India is in a strategically important neighborhood, sharing borders with China and Pakistan.

But the price Bush has paid for closer ties with India is too high. The deal he struck last summer for nuclear cooperation with New Delhi would undermine the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. It would reward India, which never signed the treaty, cheated on an earlier technology deal with the United States, then went on to test a nuclear bomb.

The message to Iran, North Korea and other nuclear wannabes couldn't be clearer or more destructive. These regimes and others will rightly conclude that the United States is interested in stopping the spread of nuclear know-how and technology only to regimes it dislikes. This perceived double standard only confirms the view that the Bush administration doesn't really believe in nonproliferation or any other treaty-based form of arms control or security. It just believes in changing hostile regimes whose aspirations threaten ours. This undermines U.S. moral leadership on the single most dangerous threat to humankind: the spread of nuclear weapons.

But there's still hope. The nuclear deal requires approval from both nations' legislatures, and it's in deep trouble in Washington and New Delhi.

In Washington, the administration has failed to secure the support of Congress, notably Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), whose views deserve particular respect because of his decades of work on nuclear disarmament and risk reduction. In India's Parliament, the deal is also under fire. The nationalist right thinks Washington should recognize that India is already an independent nuclear power that need make no concessions. There may be no way to avoid a collision here, but Bush should try to convince Indian officials that the deal needs to be renegotiated if it is to gain congressional approval.

One interesting idea for a revamped deal comes from Daniel Poneman, a former National Security Council official. He proposes that India sign on to a plan similar to the one that Russia is offering Iran: lease nuclear fuel from abroad for its civilian reactors instead of making its own. The spent fuel, which can be used to make nuclear weapons, could be safeguarded by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

India's sensitivity about its sovereignty may make the idea a non-starter; after all, the reason India didn't sign the nonproliferation treaty in the first place is because it does not believe its nuclear plans should be subject to conditions set by others. Still, an effort by Bush to pull back will help restore the global credibility of the nonproliferation ideal.

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