Fresh start or shameful retreat on South Asia?

In the wake of widely condemned nuclear tests by India and Pakistan 18 months ago, President Clinton slapped extensive sanctions on both South Asian countries. Earlier this fall, in the last hectic weeks of the congressional session, the president signed legislation, little noted in the US, that would reverse policy toward the subcontinent and holds stunning implications for US nonproliferation efforts around the world.

The Brownback amendment to the defense appropriations bill gives the president authority to waive all the Glenn amendment sanctions imposed on India and Pakistan after last year's tests. In addition, the measure authorizes the president to waive Symington and Pressler amendment sanctions, which since 1990 have barred many forms of US economic and military assistance to Pakistan because of Islamabad's nuclear weapons program.

Finally, the legislation states that the "broad application" of export controls on Indian and Pakistani government agencies and private companies suspected of having links to their national nuclear or missile programs is "inconsistent" with US national security interests. Instead, the amendment urges the president to apply US export controls only to those agencies and companies that make "direct and material contributions" to dangerous weapons and missile programs.

The Brownback amendment represents an extraordinary reversal of American policy. In effect, it forgives India and Pakistan for their 1998 nuclear tests. It abandons even those sanctions Congress had placed upon Pakistan prior to Islamabad's tests last year. A year and a half after its nuclear detonations, Pakistan finds itself far better off vis-a-vis US nuclear nonproliferation law than at anytime since 1990.

Moreover, with its statement on export controls, Congress has condemned rigorous steps to prevent the transfer of sensitive technology that might be used in Indian or Pakistani nuclear weapons or missile programs, and implicitly authorized the export of materials that might indirectly assist those programs. Coming at a time when congressional Republicans are still inflamed over possibly illegal transfers to China that might have boosted Beijing's missile development efforts, such a position is breathtaking in its audacity.

Not even recent Indian and Pakistani provocations slowed this headlong rush to lift sanctions. New Delhi's publication last summer of a draft nuclear doctrine spelling out an ambitious program to create a nuclear triad of air-, sea-, and ground-launched nuclear weapons - a plan roundly condemned by the Clinton administration - had absolutely no effect on congressional or administration support for the Brownback amendment. To the contrary, pro-India legislators hailed the publication of the draft doctrine as another indication of New Delhi's transparency and political maturity.

Nor did the October military coup in Islamabad halt the drive to free Pakistan from Pressler as well as Glenn restrictions. The coup was all but ignored during the congressional debate over sanctions relief. Only one member of either house even troubled to go to the floor to express skepticism about the wisdom of a wholesale abandonment of sanctions against Pakistan at the very moment that the Pakistani military was throwing out a civilian government, and just as Mr. Clinton was preparing to trigger another section of existing law that stipulates a whole range of economic and military sanctions against any country whose military overthrows a democratically elected government.

Similarly, Pakistan's reckless involvement in and responsibility for the Kargil operation in Kashmir, which last summer revived fears of a full-scale conflict between South Asia's nuclear-armed rivals, did not faze the legislation's proponents. The US, it would seem, was hellbent on lifting sanctions on its South Asian friends, come what may.

South Asian regional experts have long questioned the effectiveness of a policy based upon threats and sanctions, and largely applauded the Brownback amendment. Nonproliferation specialists are more dubious. Few from either camp hold much hope of compelling a nuclear rollback in South Asia. Still, many worry that we are sending precisely the wrong message to Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and other nuclear wannabes.

All in all, these developments represent a stunning retreat from America's decades-long reliance on punitive measures to block the spread of weapons of mass destruction. US anger over the South Asian tests has given way to acceptance, even understanding. Once convinced of the need to maintain a tough stance as an object lesson for other nuclear threshold states, the Republican Congress and the Democratic White House have now totally repudiated such an approach.

Quite clearly a sanctions-based policy has not kept nuclear weapons out of South Asia. The Brownback amendment may yet turn out to be enlightened statesmanship. Nonetheless, natural anxieties about our ability to restrict the further spread of weapons of mass destruction vie with astonishment at how casually we have abandoned 25 years of nonproliferation policy.

*Robert M. Hathaway is director of the Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.