Why was Bush so generous in New Delhi?

Military analysis.
March 6 2006 6:09 PM

India Giver

Why was Bush so generous in New Delhi?

Many epithets can be hurled at George W. Bush's foreign policy, but I wouldn't expect "weak-kneed" to be among them—until his nuclear deal last week with India, which is looking more slack and supine with each inspection.

A cardinal rule of negotiation, whether for labor talks or international diplomacy, is don't be afraid to leave the table. Bush broke this rule.

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India needed this deal more than the United States did. Yet it was India that got everything it wanted—and Washington that caved. The deal was wrapped up less than two hours before Bush was scheduled to hold his press conference in New Delhi with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Bush reportedly ordered his negotiators to give in on the final disputes rather than defer the accord and mangle his timetable.

Under the deal, India gets all the benefits of a country that has signed the Nonproliferation Treaty—without having to sign it or follow its most restrictive demands. That is to say, India gets to import nuclear fuel and technology to produce nuclear energy—while also continuing to build as many nuclear weapons as it desires.

Fourteen of its reactors, designated as "civilian," will be permanently subject to the safeguards and inspections of the International Atomic Energy Agency. But another eight reactors, acknowledged as "military," will not be. In fact, the deal permits India to install fast-breeder reactors in these uninspected military facilities. This was one of the contentious issues that Bush caved on in the final hours; until then, the U.S. negotiators were insisting that the fast-breeder reactors be placed in the inspected civilian facilities. Fast-breeder reactors can produce enough plutonium to build dozens of nuclear weapons a year.

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Mohamed ElBaradei, director of the IAEA, has hailed the deal because of the safeguards it imposes on India's civilian reactors. It makes one wonder if he has become so wedded to his agency's formalities that he's willing to overlook its substance. The point of safeguards and inspections is to ensure that a country doesn't convert the fuel for nuclear energy into the materials for a nuclear bomb. But what good does this provision do—why would the Indians bother converting fuel—when the deal allows them to churn as much plutonium as they'd like at reactors explicitly devoted to bomb-building?

India seeks two things: fuel for energy and recognition as a major, nuclear-armed power. Let's say for a moment that President Bush was right to accommodate these desires. Couldn't he have demanded something in return—say, a pledge not to build any more nuclear weapons? (After all, he's granting India the technology and resources that the Nonproliferation Treaty restricts to countries that have no nuclear weapons at all.)

The five countries that the NPT officially designates as "nuclear states"—the United States, Russia, China, France, and Britain—have stopped building new nuclear weapons. India currently has about 150 atomic bombs, only slightly fewer than China, France, and Britain. (Pakistan and Israel, the two countries besides India that haven't signed the NPT, have about 75 and 200 respectively. North Korea, which signed but later abrogated the treaty, may have a handful.) That should be more than enough. Can't India acknowledge as much? Is there any national-security calculus that would justify its having more? If India does build more—and there's no other reason for its insistence on putting fast-breeder reactors inside uninspected military facilities—won't that prompt Pakistan and possibly China to build more, too? Is a regional nuclear arms race in the works?

As I've written in Slate twice before, it's very much in America's interest to form a grand alliance with India—the world's largest democracy, one of the fastest-growing economies, an Asian counterweight to a rising China, and a vast market already inclined toward the United States. It's also long been clear that an alliance would have to entail some sort of nuclear partnership. India's energy needs are enormous; its energy resources are slender; and, as presidents from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton have realized when they tried to strike a deal, India just isn't going to dismantle its nuclear arsenal or sign the NPT, which would require it to do so. And so the earlier attempts collapsed.

George W. Bush's move, at once bold and reckless, was to smash through the barrier and form an alliance anyway. The question back in July, when he and Prime Minister Singh declared their intentions, was how Bush would reconcile the alliance with the NPT. The dumbfounding answer, it turns out, is that he won't. The deal with India, he and his aides have said, is a one-time exception. Other countries may view it differently.