AT FIRST glance, President Bush's signature on legislation establishing nuclear cooperation between the United States and India might seem a wise move in U.S. policy terms.
India is certainly an important ally in the troubled South Asia region. Commercial and financial relations between the two countries continue to proceed apace, even though American workers wince at the growth in outsourcing. India's economy continues to grow by leaps and bounds and is expected to reach 8 percent this year.
An Indian-American organization of 30,000 members, the U.S.-India Political Action Committee, lobbied heavily for passage of the measure, emulating the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee in the pressure it has put on legislators and the administration.
The problem is that Mr. Bush's move toward India, agreed upon initially during his visit there in March, basically cuts the ground from under any pretense that the United States is serious about limiting the proliferation of nuclear weapons. This point is particularly relevant given the major fuss the Bush Administration is making in negotiations regarding the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea - very sensitive matters indeed.
Clear evidence that America's former nonproliferation position has been shot full of holes is the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert broke a decades-long silence on Israel's possession of nuclear weapons last week, letting slip rather casually the fact that Israel has them. Seeing the United States proceed with India made it clear that at least this administration doesn't care about some countries' policies and practices with regard to nuclear weapons.
India, Israel, and Pakistan possess nuclear weapons. None has ratified the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and none permits International Atomic Energy Agency inspections of facilities. In the past the United States has refrained from overt nuclear cooperation with countries like that. Now, at least with India and probably with Israel, policy has changed.
The question is, with the rules obviously being unevenly applied, why is it acceptable for India to have nuclear weapons and still profit from U.S. nuclear cooperation, while the idea of Iran and North Korea having them has provoked threats of U.S. war and regime change against both?
It gets worse. Arab leaders in the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council met earlier this month in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and announced that they plan to launch a joint nuclear energy development program. Depending on where the program is going to be developed, it is only a matter of time until concern begins to arise about an Arab nuclear weapons threat built under cover of a nuclear energy program.
Once a principled position on a subject such as nuclear nonproliferation begins to disintegrate, it becomes increasingly difficult to consider it a policy anymore. U.S. support of nuclear nonproliferation was a bad one to give up, particularly for Indian money and votes.