Shock waves from the recent nuclear tests in India and Pakistan forced the United States onto one of the highest and thinnest diplomatic tight ropes it's been on in recent years.
Washington immediately hit both nations with economic sanctions for daring to join the nuclear club. But as Pakistan in particular now shows sharp signs of economic instability, the US is scrambling to address the unforeseen effects of its policy.
Aides to President Clinton are pleading with Congress for authority to waive sanctions. And tomorrow deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and other top officials head off on a crucial trip to both nations.
In Pakistan, especially, Mr. Talbott aims to ease tensions over sanctions and secure a promise from the government to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) on nuclear weapons. India and Pakistan have so far refused to sign the treaty. The trip, perhaps the most important US diplomatic mission to the region in 25 years, may also pave the way for Mr. Clinton's still-scheduled visit in November - the first by a US president since 1978.
As sanctions begin to have an effect, all these efforts aim at bringing some calm to a nuclear-flashpoint region.
"Sanctions can be a destabilizing force that members of Congress haven't thought through," says Richard Haass of the Brookings Institution here. "A stable Pakistan with nukes is bad enough. An unstable Pakistan with nukes is a nightmare."
Since the nuclear tests, US officials have fiercely debated the effectiveness of economic sanctions as a means of limiting the nuclear-weapon proliferation.
Pakistan's precarious situation
But the sanctions debate is now being partly eclipsed by Pakistan's acute financial troubles, which experts say could lead to dangerous civil strife. Its entire hard-currency reserves are now down to just several hundred million dollars. Its currency, the rupee, is nearly in free fall.
To conserve reserves, this week Islamabad stopped selling hard currency to residents headed overseas. And Pakistani ministers in recent weeks have even traveled to migr communities in London and the Middle East, asking for donations.
In Senate testimony July 13, Karl Inderfurth, assistant secretary of State for South Asia, described the situation in Pakistan as "potentially of grave concern."
Meanwhile, for US officials heading to the region, the main question is whether they can persuade India and Pakistan to sign the CTBT. Such a deal would allow Congress to lift sanctions. It would also keep intact the idea of sanctions as a tool of statecraft - rather than signaling that sanctions are a weak or fruitless gesture.
India, however, has long said it will not sign the CTBT without further American assurances. Pakistan has long said it won't sign unless India does - though in the past week Pakistani officials, including Foreign Minister Gohar Ayub Khan, have indicated that Islamabad may sign without India.
Meanwhile, Congress Wednesday lifted sanctions on some $38 million worth of sales of US wheat to Pakistan. Beyond that, various forms of legislation are set to be introduced on Capitol Hill that would allow the president to waive sanctions. The question is whether to allow a unilateral waiver by the White House, or to let the president waive sanctions, followed by Senate approval.
Critics of the waiver argue US policy should not be determined by business interests.
"This is a remarkably quick capitulation to US corporate interests, whether to farmers in the Northwest, or to Boeing, which wants to sell planes to India," says Joseph Ciarincione, a senior fellow in the nonproliferation program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace here.
Sanctions as stick or carrot?
When India and Pakistan openly joined the club of nuclear nations, they set off two debates in Washington. First, should US policy be driven by the potential of regional instability in south Asia? Or should it press more strongly for the two to sign nonproliferation treaties?
Second, should the US focus the enforcement of its policy on tightening punitive sanctions? Or should it look to a more cooperative approach - lifting sanctions, and paving the way for a presidential visit?
Clinton is said to be eager to visit south Asia. But whether he can go is strongly linked to whether Talbott can secure some kind of concessions from both nations, such as a letter of intent to sign CTBT.
US officials acknowledge that, after a long period of benign neglect, they must more fully engage both nations.
And India's leaders, who see themselves representing a great power that has a sixth of the world's people, have long felt "stiffed" by the US. Not only has no president traveled there since Jimmy Carter, but India recently went for more than a year without a US ambassador. When the US has been interested in India, they argue, the interest has been self-serving, for instance as a market for US business.