Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice left New Delhi this week with her hands empty but her heart full. Denied the opportunity of a signature ceremony for the “123 Agreement” governing Indo-US nuclear cooperation—the Indians preferred to wait for President Bush to sign the relevant congressional legislation first—Condi departed without the Kodak moment she had undoubtedly hoped for. But she was greeted with the effusiveness that has become customary of late between the Indian government and the Bush administration. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh even threw her a state dinner, an honor normally reserved for visiting heads of state. During a visit to the White House two weeks ago, the Indian leader even declared that “the people of India deeply love you, President Bush.” It is hard to imagine another head of government who might utter those words.
The fact is that the Indo-US relationship may well be the Bush administration’s most significant (or perhaps only) international achievement of the last eight years. Look around the globe, and all you see are foreign policy shambles: five years of war in Iraq, accompanied by Abu Ghraib, torture, and rendition; a never-ending “global war on terror,” with Guantánamo a symbol of the Bushies’ disregard for international law; rock-bottom opinion polls across Europe; a seething Middle East, a glowering Russia; and hostile powers from Iran to Venezuela. If there is a glimmer of light—one place in the world where the Bush administration leaves a better relationship than the one it inherited—it can only be India.
During a visit to the White House two weeks ago, the Indian leader even declared that “the people of India deeply love you, President Bush.” It is hard to imagine another head of government who might utter those words.
India is the only country in the world, other than Israel, where Bush rides high in the approval ratings. For decades during the Cold War, the world’s oldest democracy and its largest were largely estranged. The American preference for making anti-communist allies, however unsavory, had tied Washington to a series of increasingly Islamist dictatorships in Pakistan, while the nonaligned democracy had drifted toward the secular Soviet embrace.
With the end of the Cold War and India’s increasing integration into the global economy, a thaw set in, but India’s explosion of a nuclear device in 1998 triggered a fresh round of US sanctions. Bill Clinton began to turn things around with a hugely successful India visit during his last year in office. The Bush administration took matters much further, with a landmark accord on civil nuclear cooperation that simultaneously accomplished two things: admitting India into the global nuclear club despite its principled refusal to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (which Indians overwhelmingly reject as the last vestige of apartheid in the international system) and, more important, acknowledging that US exceptionalism had found a sibling.
Thanks to Bush, who strong-armed the 45 countries of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group into swallowing their concerns that special treatment for India could constitute a precedent for rogue nuclear aspirants such as Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran, there is now an “Indian exception.” Few things are more gratifying to a deeply proud nation that has tired of being constantly hyphenated by Washington with its smaller, dysfunctional neighbor, Pakistan.
“And when history is written, I think it will be recorded that President George W. Bush played a historic role in bringing our two democracies closer to each other,” said Singh emotionally in Washington.
When he gets around to signing that accord, George W. can allow himself one deserved smirk of self-congratulation. There are unlikely to be many more in his remaining months in office.