The United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency provided a crucial boost Friday to prospects for a nuclear deal between the United States and India, dramatically improving the Bush administration’s odds for a landmark foreign policy success in its final months in office.
The International Atomic Energy Agency approved a key inspection agreement that enables it to oversee and safeguard India’s civilian nuclear facilities.
The agreement amounted to a show of international support for the U.S.-India nuclear cooperation pact, which would give New Delhi worldwide access to nuclear equipment and assistance that had been off-limits for 34 years because India sidestepped international nonproliferation accords in building atomic weapons.
Administration officials have contended that the U.S.-India pact would seal a long-term strategic alliance between the two countries, which had tense relations during the Cold War, and would encourage India to take a more important role in world affairs.
Philip D. Zelikow, a former top aide to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said in an interview that the deal posed “the most significant issue of international engagement” in a generation and could one day represent “one of the most consequential things this administration did.”
But critics contend that the agreement would undermine efforts to prevent other countries from acquiring nuclear weapons and would leave India’s military reactors unscrutinized. The pact would overhaul a 30-year U.S. policy of denying atomic aid to nations that have not signed the global nonproliferation treaty. As part of the deal, India would receive an exemption from U.S. laws.
The agreement had appeared near death for months because of political opposition in India from those critical of closer ties to the U.S. It still needs approval from the U.S. Congress and the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a consortium of 45 countries that build nuclear equipment. Both are believed likely to approve the pact before the end of President Bush’s term.
A U.S.-India agreement would provide a foreign policy boost for the Bush administration as it seeks to improve its record before leaving office in January.
The administration has claimed success in denuclearization talks with North Korea and has boasted of the Colombian government’s U.S.-assisted efforts against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a rebel group known as the FARC.
State Department and White House officials have long believed that the deal with India would be one of the most important pieces of their foreign policy legacy, along with an improvement in relations with China.
A number of China scholars credit the administration with forging a pragmatic relationship with China after entering office in 2001 with plans to confront Beijing on a wide range of issues, including human rights. Many U.S. conservatives who are critical of China’s rights record are sharply at odds with Bush.
Overall, however, many observers and critics believe that the successes have done little to improve Bush’s overall foreign policy record.
“On the essential issues, we’re still working from a deficit,” said Derek Chollet, a State Department official during the Clinton administration, now at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank.
Secretary of State Rice’s 18-month effort to forge a peace accord between Israelis and Palestinians suffered a setback this week with the announcement that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would leave office this fall. And although U.S. officials claim credit for strengthening international negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, tensions remain high.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have represented Bush’s biggest foreign policy liabilities, but the administration has sought to blunt that view. Bush this week pointed to the likelihood of additional troop withdrawals from Iraq in arguing that the nation he invaded in 2003 may now have turned a corner.
Zelikow, now at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, said that in the future, “we may judge that the Bush administration in its last two years was able to turn Iraq from a situation of disaster to trend lines that are much better than anyone thought possible.”
He added that a much longer record of improvement would be necessary to make such a judgment. Still, critics consider such thought overly optimistic.
“For five years we have seen signs of hope, only to have them dashed,” said Chollet, who was an advisor to then-Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.). “I don’t think the American public is about to declare this a success.”