One of the Bush administration’s top foreign policy priorities before the end of the year is to secure congressional approval of the U.S.-India nuclear deal initially agreed to in July 2005 between President George. W. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The agreement, which has been the subject of hand-wringing among arms control analysts because it reverses long-standing U.S. nonproliferation policy, would permit the United States to transfer sensitive nuclear technology to India-a nation that is not part of the international nonproliferation regime. In return, India promised to continue its moratorium on nuclear weapons testing, to separate its civilian and military nuclear facilities, and to refrain from transferring its nuclear technology to third parties.
Congressional approval of the deal, however, is jeopardized by the few remaining days of congressional session this year and the potential for the November 7 elections to diminish interest in a lengthy lame-duck session (when Congress reconvenes after the November elections). Congress is scheduled to return to session on November 13. House Republican leaders say that the House will remain in session for a week, adjourn for a long Thanksgiving holiday, and then return in early December. Senate leaders have also scheduled a November 13 return, with an even murkier schedule beyond that week. The most important agenda items for Congress are the annual appropriations bills, the legislation that provides funds to run the federal government.
The Bush administration will be pressing the Senate leadership to take up the U.S.-India deal during the lame-duck session. However, if the Democrats take either the House or Senate from the Republicans, both parties may agree to put off any hard decisions until 2007.
The agreement, which was formally sealed in March 2006, has been hailed by the Bush administration as a major breakthrough in U.S.-Indian diplomacy after decades of brittle relations. During the Cold War, India was a leader of the “Third World” nations that refused to ally with either NATO or the Warsaw Pact. Moreover, in response to India’s nuclear weapons tests in 1974 and 1998, the United States restricted the transfer of nuclear technology and materials to the world’s largest democracy.
Many U.S. organizations that actively promote nuclear nonproliferation policies see the deal as a major blunder. Former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-GA), co-chairman and chief executive officer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, called the deal a “Nuclear Pig in a Poke.” In a May 24, 2006 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal , Nunn argued that “the agreement is likely to make securing nuclear materials around the globe and preventing nuclear terrorism more difficult.”
Nunn pointed out that while India has agreed to permit the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect 14 civilian reactors, eight of its other existing reactors and future reactors would remain free from international monitoring.
He added that this deal undermines another important American objective: blocking Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs. It is more difficult to persuade others to back the U.S. effort when Washington makes exceptions to its long-standing nuclear policies just for India, a country that not only has a nuclear weapons program but has also rejected both the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
Finally, Nunn pointed out: “Other nations-if not today, certainly tomorrow-will want the same deal as India . like Brazil, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Japan, and South Korea.”
A number of influential forces in the United States have developed arguments promoting the U.S.-India deal, based on everything from power politics to business interests. One argument that resonates with members of Congress is that the world’s two largest democracies should be actively cooperating in the struggle against Islamic extremists and flourishing dictatorships. The one billion Indians combined with 300 million Americans, along with the Western European democracies, can be a potent global force for open societies.
Some on the political right go further and foresee India as a natural partner in U.S. hegemonic designs on the rest of the world. As Thomas Donnelly and Melissa Wisner put it in a recent essay for the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), “Outside Tony Blair’s Britain, only India stands as a natural great-power partner in building the next American century,” (“A Global Partnership Between the U.S. and India,” AEI, September 7, 2006). Though the Bush administration’s global ambitions have been set back by the Iraq disaster, neoconservatives who have until recently been a dominant force in the Bush administration still have grand designs of spreading democracy and eliminating “irritants” such as Iran and North Korea.
Moreover, after the disappearance of the Soviet Union as the major U.S. rival more than 15 years ago, many conservatives elevated China as the only world power than might challenge U.S. dominance. While administration officials have been reluctant to voice the direct connection, some conservatives have suggested that India may partner with the United States to contain China’s growing military power. To them, an economically resurgent India armed with nuclear weapons could serve as a counterweight to China’s strength in the world.
In their AEI essay, Donnelly and Wisner suggest that, “Both the United States and India understand China’s economic importance and growing global influence, yet both fear rising Chinese military power . many Indian strategists feel this even more keenly than their American counterparts.”
The neoconservative-aligned Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) similarly suggests a role for India against China. A JINSA report covering its joint conference with the U.S.-India Institute, at which security relations between Washington and New Delhi were a major topic, stated: “On the American side too, there are hopes that a nuclear powerful India could serve as a counterweight to China” (“U.S.-India Relations to Grow Closer on Back of Landmark Nuclear Accord,” JINSA, September 15, 2006).
American business interests are also strongly behind the agreement. According to the Washington Post, American companies see a vast market in India for nuclear reactors and conventional weapons, after having been largely frozen out of that market for decades (“New Energy on India,” July 18, 2006).
India plans to build eight new nuclear reactors in coming years, and envisions infrastructure spending of $200 billion over the next five years. The hopes of the U.S. nuclear industry, however, may be dashed, according to the Post report, because French and Russian firms have a clear edge in the negotiations to build the new reactors.
However, U.S. weapons firms may be closer to a new gravy train. (India has not purchased arms from the United States since 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson cut off arms during the India-Pakistan war.) Boeing hopes to supply 120 fighter planes to the Indian Air Force, and Lockheed Martin has major designs on India’s weapons market (Washington Post, July 18, 2006).
Whether or not these hopes are realized, a number of U.S. business groups have been lobbying for approval of the deal. The U.S.-India Business Council is involved heavily in the effort and has hired the high-powered firm of Patton Boggs to work on Congress. The Indian government has retained another potent U.S. lobbying firm, Barbour Griffith & Rogers LLC, of which Robert Blackwill-U.S. ambassador to India from 2001 to 2003-is president, as well as the law firm of Venable LLP, which publishes a periodic “News and Views About the United States and India.” Also involved are the Confederation of Indian Industry and the India American Friendship Council. Bruce Josten, an executive vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, weighed in with the highly inflated claim that “India’s nuclear power requirements are projected to generate as many as 27,000 high-quality jobs each year for the next 10 years in the U.S. nuclear industry alone” (The Hindu, September 20, 2006). Many of the new jobs may be outsourced to India in any case.
These voices have been joined by many from the Indian-American community, a heretofore quiet force in the United States. Grasping lessons from Jewish Americans, Irish Americans, Polish Americans, Greek Americans, and so many other ethnic powerhouses in American politics, the two million-strong community of Americans of Indian descent has weighed in with individual members of Congress. The U.S. India Political Action Committee handed out campaign contributions to key lawmakers, a classic lobbying technique (Washington Post, July 18, 2006).
When one senator on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, whose staffer agreed to talk to me off the record about the issue, posed some tough, probing questions to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at a hearing on the deal, he quickly heard from Indian-American constituents. The reaction was perhaps an indication of the importance of the issue to some Americans. “This is a defining moment for the two million Americans of Indian descent,” said Ramesh Kapur, chairman of the Indo-Americans Leadership Committee (“Indo-Americans Step up Lobbying for the Nuclear Deal,” InsideBayArea.com, July 14, 2006).
The combined pressure of the Bush administration, the conservatives who see India as a bulwark against China, large business interests, and the Indian-American community has had an impact. Though many senators and representatives likely share Nunn’s nuclear nonproliferation concerns, they voted overwhelmingly for the U.S.-India deal.
In July 2006, the House endorsed the deal by a vote of 359-68. On June 29, 2006, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted “yes” 16-2 to send the deal to the Senate floor with approval. The brief discussion about the deal before the vote was akin to a lovefest for India and for the agreement. Only senators Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) voted against the agreement.
As Congress neared its recess at the end of September, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada tried to work out an agreement to debate the agreement in the waning days of remaining session. Frist wanted little debate, while Reid insisted on the Democrats’ right to offer amendments. After the Frist-Reid negotiations failed, each side blamed the other for the delay and both promised to bring up the agreement early in the lame-duck session.
But time limitations are a major barrier to winning final approval for the agreement before the end of 2007. What is more, the longer the agreement sits in limbo, the more it is subject to unanticipated events: renewed opposition from Indian nuclear scientists and opposition parties in India, international events such as North Korea’s recent nuclear tests (which raised proliferation concerns to new heights), and the November 7 election results.
John Isaacs is president of the Council for a Livable World and a contributor to Right Web (rightweb.irc-online.org).