India Nuclear Deal May Face Hard Sell

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 3, 2006

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew into New Delhi a year ago and set in motion a revolution in U.S. policy on nuclear weapons and relations with India.

She didn't tip her hand publicly during the brief stop, sticking to bland expressions of "a new relationship" with "great potential." The outlines of her plan were known by only a handful of people in the U.S. government.

Four months later, on July 18, President Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh approved a landmark accord at the White House.

Beyond the invasion of Iraq, few of Bush's decisions have as much potential to shake the international order than his deal with India, supporters and opponents agree. The debate over the deal has pitted against each other two powerful national security goals -- the desire to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and the desire to counter the rise of China, in this case by accelerating New Delhi's ascent as a global power.

After three decades of treating India as a pariah because it used a civilian nuclear program to produce fissile material for weapons, Bush decided the United States would forgive the transgression. India would be able to buy foreign-made nuclear reactors if it opened its civilian facilities to international inspections -- while being allowed to substantially ramp up its ability to produce materials for nuclear weapons.

Previously, the administration had favored an incremental easing of the nuclear rules regarding India. This agreement, as one of Rice's aides put it, was "the big bang," designed to bring historically nonaligned India firmly into the U.S. camp. But the deal has spawned fierce controversy in Washington, in part because going forward would require Congress to change laws for the nuclear sales. Rice will defend the agreement in congressional testimony this week.

The story behind the agreement also sheds light on how foreign policy is conducted in Bush's second term. For an administration frequently criticized for not being nimble, the India deal highlights the flexibility of Rice's foreign-policy team, which has also shifted policies toward Europe, on Iran and other areas in the past year. It demonstrates how, in contrast to the first term, foreign policy is largely driven by Rice and a close circle of advisers, not the White House staff.

But the India deal also shows the drawbacks of this approach, critics say. The agreement is in trouble partly because -- in what some critics say is an echo of the Iraq invasion -- there was little consultation with Congress or within the foreign-affairs bureaucracy before it was announced. Last month in New Delhi, Bush and Singh reached agreement on how India will implement the deal. But nuclear specialists in the U.S. government say their concerns about weapons proliferation also were overridden in final talks.

Now, nuclear experts from across the political spectrum have urged Congress to modify the accord, which the administration and Indian officials say would be tantamount to killing it.

"There are times when you have to engage in incremental diplomacy and there are times you need someone who is willing to make a bold move," Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns said in an interview. "The president was willing a make a bold move towards India, and it is going to pay off for the United States now and into the future."

Many diplomatic turning points, such as President Richard M. Nixon's historic decision to open relations with China, are first conducted in secret because established bureaucracies tend to resist new ideas. Senior U.S. officials reject complaints that the expertise of government nonproliferation specialists was ignored. But, as one person involved in the policy development put it, "it is no accident that [nuclear experts] were not included, because you didn't have to be a seer to know how much they would hate this."

The agreement is also controversial in India, where close association with the United States is viewed with suspicion and the eagerness of the Bush administration to strike an agreement frequently took the Indian establishment by surprise. Before Bush arrived in India last month, Singh had little support in his cabinet for reaching a final accord on implementing the agreement, Indian officials said.

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