Journalist | Writer | Analyst
The Democrats’ resounding victory in Congress makes the task of tying up the India-U.S. nuclear agreement’s loose ends more difficult but the underlying strategic rationale for the deal from the American perspective remains strong.
10 November 2006
Nuclear deal: delayed but not quite dead
IN HANDING the Republicans a “thumping” in Tuesday’s mid-term election, the average American voter has signalled his displeasure at a broad range of policies being pursued by the Bush administration. Top among these is Iraq, where mounting U.S. casualties from the illegal invasion and occupation of that country have led to calls for a major change of strategy. Nancy J. Pelosi, the new majority leader in the House of Representatives, has vowed to push for a new bipartisan Iraq policy and in his first comments President George W. Bush has signalled his readiness to explore new options in cooperation with the Democrats. Mr. Bush knows there can be no “staying the course on Iraq” and has thrown his trusted Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, to the wolves. But the truth is that nobody in Washington — Republican or Democrat, Neocon or Scowcroftian — quite knows how to undo the mess. The relatively easy but totally disastrous option being favoured is partition. The difficult but much more rewarding path of using rapprochement with Iran as a means of stabilising both Iraq and Afghanistan will probably still be considered anathema.
Though India has a vital stake in how the American policy debate over Iraq shapes up, the Manmohan Singh Government is most concerned about what the altered equations on Capitol Hill will mean for the U.S.-India nuclear agreement. At one level, this is hardly surprising. The deal holds out the prospect of an end to the international boycott that India has suffered on the civil nuclear cooperation front since 1974. But the deal also brings with it collateral baggage that many in India find too onerous to make the entire transaction worthwhile. The `technical’ battle on separation and safeguards has not yet fully been won; and the strategic and political costs of proximity to an America wedded to destructive policies across Asia have yet to be toted up.
The use of U.S. military power in Iraq and Afghanistan and the coercive discourse against Iran have brought anarchy and instability to our very doorstep and degraded the overall security environment in our extended neighbourhood. Whether the Indian deal sinks or swims, it is far more important, then, that the election result in the U.S. induces a dramatic turnaround in American policy towards West Asia. The world cannot postpone the resumption of nuclear commerce with India indefinitely; sooner rather than later, with or without the exertions of the Bush administration, it will come. But if the disaster that is Iraq continues, or if a conflict is initiated with Iran, the damage that results will last a long time.
Having said that, there is little danger of the Indian deal sinking even if the White House does not manage to win the approval of the Senate during the “lame duck” session that begins next week. When the U.S. and India Nuclear Cooperation Act of 2006 was put to vote before the House of Representatives on July 26, it passed with such an overwhelming majority — 359 yeas to 68 nays — that even the ejection of 28 Republicans at Tuesday’s hustings will not alter the fundamental balance. In other words, there is no reason to imagine the deal will not win more than 300 yeas again if and when it comes up for vote next year.
There is, however, a danger that in the new Congress, some of the “killer” amendments considered this year might gain more traction. For example, Ms. Pelosi, who will be the most important member of the House, strongly backed the deal but also favoured the Berman amendment making U.S.-India nuclear cooperation conditional on an end to fissile material production by India. The Berman amendment was defeated but Ms. Pelosi voted for the deal nevertheless. At the same time, her statement to the House on July 26 gives some indication of the importance she attaches to the issue of fissile material. “[Even] if the Berman amendment is not adopted, I hope that the agreement that will be presented to Congress for approval when negotiations are concluded [that is, the `123′ agreement] contains a promise by India to halt the production of fissile material. Such a promise would improve the agreement and go a long way to convincing those who cannot support today’s legislation that their concerns have been heard and that the Bush administration and the government of India has sought to respond to them.”
Apart from the fissile material issue, it is possible that with the Democrats in ascendance, the House will want to take on powers of oversight in terms of requiring annual certification of Indian good behaviour from the White House. Such an attempt would fly in the face of India’s attempts to dilute the existing legislative language on certification.
Taken together, the election results and the North Korean nuclear test also reduce the political space for the Bush administration to be flexible on New Delhi’s concerns about references to an Indian nuclear test in the so-called 123 agreement. India will thus have to carefully evaluate the final product on the basis of its stated red lines and decide whether it is worthwhile to sign on the dotted line.
All told, the existing loose ends will have become more difficult to tie up as a result of Tuesday’s election. But this does not mean the U.S. will allow its nuclear deal with India to die a quiet death. If the issue gets delayed beyond the lame duck session, it will have to be reintroduced at the committee stage in both houses of Congress next year. If President Bush and the Democrats are serious about seeking bipartisanship across a range of issues, the nuclear deal with India offers them an easy platform to test their relationship. For domestic political reasons, the Democrats may be reluctant to give President Bush the satisfaction of at least one success on the diplomatic front but it is unlikely that they will allow the establishment of a strong strategic partnership with India to be held ransom to such considerations.
Coming from different ends of the political spectrum, both Neocon and Liberal Internationalist see tremendous value in building a strong economic, strategic, and military relationship with India. Both wish to harness India’s rising economic clout for the furtherance of American geopolitical goals in Asia and beyond. There are also strong business lobbies working actively behind the scenes. The stakes are high. If the nuclear deal is what it takes for India to be brought on board, the Democrats are just as likely to sign on as the Republicans.