Bush’s visit: Days in India, hours in Pakistan
Weekly Pulse
March 3-9, 2006
WASHINGTON, DC: Four days in India, only a day in Pakistan. Does this mean that the proportionate importance that the visiting President George W Bush attaches to America’s relationship with South Asia’s two most important countries is 4:1? There may be some truth in such an assessment, especially in the light of the growing tilt towards India in the US policy towards South Asia in the last decade and a half. However, this does not meant Pakistan does not fare anywhere in the US scheme of things for the region.

This would be the fifth visit of a US President to Pakistan. The previous four were by President Dwight D Eisenhower in 1959, President Lyndon B Johnson twice in the late 60’s, President Richard Nixon in 1969 and President Bill Clinton in 2000. President Jimmy Carter visited India in 1978. However, given his opposition to Pakistan especially in the aftermath of the 1977 military coup, he did not visit Islamabad.

During President Ronald Reagan’s time, the US-Pakistan relations were the closest ever in the entire Cold War era, yet the American leader did not come to the country—probably due to security concerns. The same security concerns are basically preventing President Bush to come for a longer during in Pakistan. Contrary to him, President Clinton’s short sojourn to the federal capital was motivated more by his personal desire to distance himself from a coup maker rather than security concerns.

Just as there are stresses and strains in Pakistan-US relations, particularly their difference of perceptions over the modus operandi of the ‘war on terrorism,’ the US-India relationship is not totally friendly. India has, for instance, opposed Bush Administration’s demand for separating its civilian and military nuclear installations, as a means to realize the July 2005 India-US nuclear deal.

Such strains in Indo-US ties were clearly visible as President Bush was preparing earlier in the week to leave Washington, DC for a five-day trip to India and Pakistan. Even though the US capital prior to his trip remained gripped mostly with the controversy over the Dubai Port World’s deal to take control of six main US ports, including those of New York and New jersey—which led to a bipartisan Congressional opposition campaign on grounds of post-9/11 security concerns inside the US—President Bush did speak out about the importance of his South Asian trip.

On February 22, for example, the US leader outlined his vision of a long-term U.S. alliance with India and Pakistan that would foster greater freedom in South Asia, facilitate peace between the two feuding neighbors and help thwart terrorism. “Together, free Asians and free Americans will seize the opportunities this new century offers, and lay the foundation of peace and prosperity for generations to come,” Mr Bush said in a speech to Asia Society here in the US capital.

The American President hoped that India and Pakistan's partnership with the U.S.—accelerated by mutual opposition to Islamist terrorism—would help reduce friction between the two populous countries. In the past, he said, leaders of Pakistan and India had grown nervous whenever U.S. relations with one have warmed. In the current climate of mutual opposition to terrorism, he said, “good relations with America can help both nations in their quest for peace.” As evidence that friction already is diminishing, he noted that trade between India and Pakistan nearly doubled in the past year or so.

It is, however, the Indo-US nuclear deal of July 2005 that is perceived among the South Asian experts at Washington-based think-tanks to be the most crucial item of discussion between Mr Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Under this agreement, the United States would help India to build civilian nuclear reactors and import advanced weapons, setting aside the principle that countries refusing to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty should be denied such assistance. In return, India agreed to renounce further nuclear tests, open its civilian nuclear reactors to international inspections and avoid cooperation with nuclear proliferators.

However, in recent months, the renewed nationalist fever in India seems to have come in the way of its nuclear deal with the US, as New Delhi has refused to separate its military and civilian nuclear reactors, arguing that they are integrated. India does not want to place its key reactors under the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), while the US wishes otherwise.

On February 22, the US President pressed India to move more aggressively to separate civilian and military nuclear programs so that a faltering nuclear agreement between the United States and India might win the approval of a skeptical Congress and America's nuclear-armed allies.

A Washington Post editorial published last Sunday expressed US concerns over India’s nuclear stand by stating that “India's offer to open its civilian reactors to international inspections is being undermined by signs that key reactors will be defined as military and thus be exempted. This would put India in a position to expand its nuclear arsenal rapidly, which might in turn cause neighboring Pakistan to build extra nukes to retain a viable deterrent.”

Displaying its generally anti-Pakistan attitude, the Washington Post argued that the above prospect was alarming “because Pakistan's dictatorship sits atop a cauldron of militant Islamic ferment and because Pakistan's nuclear scientists have a record of retailing know-how to rogue nations.” Last month as well, the conservative US paper had lashed out at President General Pervez Musharraf for cheating the US in its war on terrorism, especially vis-à-vis Afghanistan.

The American media perception about India is that, current snags in its ties with Washington aside, the country may act as a “counterweight to China, as the Washington Post editorial stated, adding: “And given India's large and tolerant Muslim population, it could be an ally against Islamic radicalism.”

As for Pakistan, for now, Washington looks at the country as strategically important for its war on terrorism in Afghanistan. That is why Islamabad was given the status of a non-NATO ally three years ago. However, just as Pakistanis generally perceive America to be an ally of convenience, a considerable section of the US expertise on South Asia treats Pakistan as an important ally but of transitory significance.

The US approach not to treat India and Pakistan even-handedly, as was the case throughout the Cold War period, could be understandable during the Democratic era of President Clinton. However, the unfortunate reality is that even during the Republican governance of President Bush, who has treated his Pakistani counterpart as a special friend, Washington has kept on treating India in its own right and Pakistan in its own place. Given India’s much bigger potential vis-à-vis Pakistan, such real-politick American concerns have gradually replaced the traditionally operative American outlook on South Asia, whereby Washington would also give equal significance to Indo-Pak strategic dilemma.

Who is to blame? More than anyone else, it is the Pakistani diplomacy at the US Capitol Hill that seems to have resulted in a US policy towards South Asia that is more pro-India and less pro-Pakistan. The Indians have a very credible caucus at the Capitol Hill, which played an important role in securing the July 2005 Indo-US nuclear deal and continues to help New Delhi in its current nuclear row with the Bush administration. The government of Pakistan, on the other hand, has failed to have an effective Pakistan caucus that could muster enough support in favour of Pakistan in the US Congress.