The President's South Asia tour was a public relations success, but he made little progress on the critical issues
By ANTHONY SPAETH
Bill Clinton's trip to the subcontinent was billed as one of the most difficult of his presidency--an intriguing characterization for a President who has visited more than 60 foreign lands in seven years--and one of the riskiest in terms of personal safety. Who would have guessed it would also be so much fun? Clinton frolicked with peasant women in an Indian village while being showered with flower petals. The shopping was great: he charged three carpets to his Visa card, and daughter Chelsea searched for fabric in a New Delhi market. Together they saw the Taj Mahal, ceremonial elephants and two Bengal tigers prowling through the grass of a nature preserve.
The work didn't go badly either, as Bill went on a one-man crusade to dissolve decades of distrust between India and the U.S. It was a great visit, absolutely great, said an aide to Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. A Clinton adviser agreed: It was almost as if you could hear the ice melting. Nonetheless, when Clinton headed home from Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, after a six-hour, relatively unproductive coda to the six-day trip, he left back on the ground a couple of elephantine issues he hadn't managed to budge at all: the two countries' nuclear arms race and their obsession with Kashmir, the Himalayan territory over which they have fought two full-scale wars. And the U.S. President got more than a glimpse of the leonine passions Kashmir evokes. On the second day of his visit, unidentified gunmen killed 35 Kashmiri villagers. No group has claimed responsibility, but the massacre was clearly intended to put the Kashmir issue on Clinton's agenda. Had President Clinton not visited India, said Swaroop Singh, 70, a resident of the village, this would not have happened.
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History Comes Tumbling Down Getting involved in the subcontinent's tangled politics has its hazards, even for someone with Clinton's normally deft touch. The diplomatic low of the trip was in Pakistan, where Clinton raised several tough issues with the country's military leader, General Pervez Musharraf. Clinton stressed the need for a timetable for national elections to restore the democracy Musharraf dismantled last October, he urged Pakistan to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (ctbt) and he asked that Pakistan use its influence in Afghanistan to help bring suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden to justice. More positive was a day-trip to Bangladesh, the first visit by a U.S. President in the country's 28-year history, where Clinton all but apologized for siding against the Bangladeshis in their war of independence with Pakistan. (He stated that their struggle did not receive the support it deserved from many countries around the world.)
But giant India was Clinton's main destination, and that part of the trip had a honeymoon glow from start to finish. He loved the local food and, at one banquet, ate a second serving of mango ice cream. In the desert state of Rajasthan, he quizzed village women about their menfolk and was inducted into the local milk cooperative. Before India's parliament, Clinton gave an adroit, nationally broadcast speech that sideswiped Pakistan and, in respectful language Indians are not used to hearing from the U.S., said: Only India can determine if it will benefit from expanding its nuclear and missile capabilities if its neighbors respond by doing the same thing. There were some anti-U.S. protests here and there; one near the parliament building attracted only 20 chanters. At a state dinner, a prickly toast was delivered by K.R. Narayanan, India's President, who complained about the U.S. being the world's sole superpower. The visiting Americans brushed it off, with one official calling Narayanan not a serious player.
In general, Indians seemed eager to embrace a new relationship with the U.S. After all, the main issues that kept India and the U.S. apart are cold-war relics. After World War II, India declined to help the U.S. in its crusade against communism and eventually cozied up to the Soviet Union. The U.S. supplied arms to Pakistan--they were later used in its 1965 war with India--and sympathized with Islamabad during the 1971 war over Bangladesh. In 1977, Coca-Cola and IBM were forced out of socialist, anti-imperialist India, and American movies and music were stopped at the border. In the 1980s, the divide only widened, as the U.S. used Pakistan to help drive the Soviets from Afghanistan.
Today, it's a whole new world, at least for India's urban middle-classes. Teens wear Nikes, drink Coke and 7-Up and watch hbo. Indian businessmen have discovered the Internet, that most open, international and, for now, American-led bazaar. Editorialized New Delhi's Hindustan Times last week: The memories of that unfriendly past seem more and more unreal with each passing day.
Considering the past, Clinton's trip was a diplomatic marvel. Looking to the future, though, the wonder is that he came at all. Aside from a joint Vision Statement, the only concrete accomplishments were the announcement of some U.S.-Indian business deals (amounting to $4 billion in areas such as telecoms, software and power projects) and pledges to quicken the dialogue between India and the U.S. Shortly before his trip, Clinton had characterized the region as the most dangerous place in the world today. No matter how successful his personal diplomacy was, the President didn't manage to ratchet down the region's danger level.
Then again, no big breakthroughs had been expected. Washington's efforts to get both India and Pakistan to sign the ctbt have floundered for years; the U.S. Senate's rejection of the treaty last October made that goal unlikely for the foreseeable future. Clinton did call for India to cap its nuclear weapons program. But India insisted that it needs a credible minimum nuclear deterrent, its code phrase for nukes on missiles, on fighter planes and in submarines. On that issue, the two sides agreed to disagree.
Kashmir, meanwhile, remains a 53-year-old conundrum where horrific violence, such as last week's massacre, can be ordered up on a few days' notice. Clinton and Vajpayee had two 45-minute meetings, plus a 10-minute chat without aides, and Kashmir got the most attention of any issue. Vajpayee assured Clinton that India would not use violence in the territory as an excuse for war. Clinton said he considered India partly at fault in Kashmir, and that the decade-long anti-Indian insurgency would continue until the genuine grievances of Kashmiris, including human rights abuses by Indian soldiers, were addressed.
Nonetheless, when Clinton got up to speak to the Indian parliament, what came out was music to almost all Indian ears. He said he shared India's concern about Pakistan, your disappointment that past overtures have not always met with success, your outrage over recent violence. He also said that part of the problem was a lack of respect for the Line of Control, the de facto border between the two countries' forces in Kashmir. India staunchly maintains that the only problem in Kashmir is a proxy war supported by Pakistan and fueled by insurgents smuggled across the Line of Control. Clinton's comments were the closest that the U.S. has come to agreeing with that view. This is a vindication of India's stand, said an External Affairs Ministry official.
Whether that constituted a tilt toward India--as the U.S. is excoriated in New Delhi for its past tilt toward Pakistan--or just a sop to Indian sensitivities was much debated in the following days. America departed significantly from its earlier positions on Kashmir, said a senior Indian official, but India did not concede an inch on the nuclear issue. Balveer Arora, professor of government and politics at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, said India may have to respond. Clinton has signaled a big shift by tilting away from Pakistan, he said. India will have to reciprocate, and clearly what the U.S. wants more than anything else is for India to sign the ctbt and cap its nuclear weapons program. There are no free lunches.
The stop in Pakistan had tension written on it from the start. Clinton debated for weeks whether to pay respects to General Pervez Musharraf, who overthrew the country's elected government last October. Security was always a worry, and Islamabad was virtually sealed off for the six-hour visit. The slaughter in Kashmir only heightened the awkwardness. The assailants were dressed in Indian Army uniforms, but those could have been faked, and last Friday India claimed to have arrested one of the gunmen and identified him as a member of an extremist group allegedly backed by Pakistan. The most logical motivation for the massacre was to push Kashmir higher up on Clinton's agenda, a goal that Pakistan, unlike India, would welcome. (Pakistan wants international mediation; India insists Kashmir is its territory and its problem.) The insurgent groups in Kashmir have denied involvement, but Clinton told abc News that he would not volunteer to mediate the Kashmir problem, saying: I'm not going to be dragged into something that, first of all, India doesn't want us to be part of, and secondly, that I get dragged into from deliberate acts of violence.
While in Islamabad he went on TV and radio to tell the public that military rule, support for terrorism and nuclear proliferation and increasing tensions with India would get Pakistan nowhere with the U.S. Sounding like a guidance counselor with a student whose chances were running out, he ended the speech by saying, It is all in your hands. The tone was sterner than in India--but it was a message that applied on both sides of one of the world's tensest borders.
Reported by Jay Branegan/with Clinton, Meenakshi Ganguly and Maseeh Rahman/New Delhi, Hannah Bloch/Islamabad and Farid Hossain/Dhaka