WASHINGTON - When Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was at the White House recently, he not only was honored at a rare state dinner, he also got a surprise gift that stunned many members of Congress.
He went home with a pledge that the Bush Administration will help India get more electricity from nuclear power plants. The catch is that Congress must agree.
The problem is that India secretly has tested nuclear weapons, and the Bush Administration's policy has been not to reward India's thumbing its nose at the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty by providing it with nuclear technology. Same for Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel.
Without consulting Congress, however, the administration seemingly out of the blue has decided that in the case of India, it will change its policy of requiring that a country give up all efforts to obtain nuclear weapons in order to get civilian nuclear technology.
Since Pakistan is India's arch-enemy and also has tested nuclear weaponry, scoffing at the nonproliferation treaty, isn't Pakistan angry that its neighbor and arch rival for Kashmir is getting special treatment? Might Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding, stop cooperating in the war on terror?
No, says the administration. When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke to Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, she reported that his reaction was "constructive." Officially, there has been no word from Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.
Once again the world is befuddled by what the White House is trying to do in the nuanced world of foreign policy.
India did not support Mr. Bush when he went to war in Iraq, but now the President is asking Congress to junk a 1978 law that says America will not help states which are illegally trying to go nuclear by selling them access to American nuclear power technology.
Because, once again, the State Department, which opposed the deal, lost out to Defense chief Donald Rumsfeld. Mr. Rumsfeld argues that India, a former British colony, has a special relationship with the United States and has agreed to permit inspections to make sure it doesn't misuse the technology, if the deal goes forward.
And get this! India never signed the non-proliferation pact and therefore, says the Rumsfeld faction, it should not be punished because it violated the agreement. But North Korea and Iran should be punished because they did sign the pact but didn't abide by it and North Korea pulled out.
The feckless Europeans, who should be against the deal, will probably not raise much of a fuss because they love the profits from selling nuclear technology to almost anyone who has the money.
The only person who may be able to block the deal is Sen. Richard Lugar (R., Ind.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator Lugar has long argued that the biggest threat to the United States is nuclear proliferation.
On the deal with India, he has been wary but cautious in his pronouncements. He was quoted as saying, "We're going to have a lot of conversations" with the administration about how exactly this would work and whether it significantly changes U.S. policy.
Mr. Singh was welcomed to Capitol Hill, where he addressed a joint session of Congress. He said that his country is a "responsible" nuclear state. He said India must have help if it is to grow economically (and compete with China) and to do that must have U.S. technology and dollars. He didn't add, but could have, it's the least the United States should do since it blocked India from becoming a permanent member on the U.N. Security Council.
At the National Press Club, Mr. Singh spoke of his country's urgent need for energy and said, "The United States, I believe, is not only cognizant of our energy requirements, but appreciative of the role that India can also play in strengthening global nonproliferation efforts."
He said he is proud that out of India's 1 billion people, 150 million are Muslims and "not one of them has joined the ranks of these gangs like al-Qaeda or other terrorist activities." How he knows for sure is amazing.
The United States is absolutely right to seek closer ties with India and to support its economic growth but not at the cost of its own principles.
Without U.S. efforts, there would not be a nuclear nonproliferation treaty. With U.S. efforts, there may no longer be an effective one.