Clinton Should Try to Cool South Asia

A version of this article [as an open letter] was sent to President Bill Clinton by a joint task force of the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations; Haass is the task force chair.

President Bill Clinton’s visit to India, Bangladesh and Pakistan—the three principal countries of South Asia that, together, are home to one out of every five people in the world—is to be welcomed.

he trip—the first by an American president to India in 22 years, to Pakistan in 30, and the first ever to Bangladesh—provides an opportunity not only to promote important U.S. interests but also (in ways not unlike presidential visits to China and Africa) to provide a rounded picture of a part of the world that is truly foreign to most Americans.

The problem with going now stems from the reality that South Asia is a far more dangerous place than it was only one or two years ago. Relations between India and Pakistan have sunk to a dangerous level, one that could easily lead to conflict.

The challenge is to address current tensions without losing sight of the longer-term U.S. interests in forging closer ties with the states of the region and India in particular.

The lion’s share of time with Indian officials should be devoted to consultations that underscore American interest in making the bilateral relationship more significant to both countries.

It would be extremely valuable to exchange views on some of the basic questions of post-Cold War international relations and institutionalize regular U.S.-Indian exchanges on a range of global issues.

It is essential to resist the temptation to place ambitious, nuclear weapons-related goals at the center of American aims.

Any attempt to persuade India to eliminate its nuclear arsenal will fail (and poison the atmosphere for the constructive discussion of other issues) given Indian concerns about both China and Pakistan and the inclination of many Indians to associate nuclear weapons with great power status.

Nor is Clinton well placed to pressure India to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty given the failure of the U.S. Senate to ratify the accord.

It would be neither advisable nor possible to go to India and avoid serious discussion of Pakistan. The president should urge Indian leaders to engage Pakistan’s chief, Gen. Pervaiz Musharraf, and his government directly and to consider what India might do to build ties to Pakistan’s society and economy.

Clinton should make the case that a stable, moderate Pakistan is very much in India’s self-interest, and suggest that India will find it exceedingly difficult to realize its potential to play a major role in Asia and the world so long as it must devote itself to dealing with a hostile, unstable Pakistan.

As for Kashmir, Clinton should note Washington’s concerns that Kashmir remains the most likely trigger of a costly and dangerous Indo-Pakistani conflict that would leave all parties worse off regardless of how it began; that India would be wise to adopt measures that would provide the inhabitants of the region greater autonomy and civil rights; that there should be some sort of a peace process involving India, Pakistan and the people of Kashmir; that the parties should focus on reciprocal, interim measures designed to improve day-to-day life in Kashmir and reduce the risk of war; and that the United States stands willing to assist if all the parties so desire.

Privately, the president should stress the importance of their taking a firm stand against terrorism and voice strong criticism of their provocative posture toward the Kashmir insurgency, making clear that they and their country would not benefit if Pakistan foments a war with India over Kashmir or anything else.

And Clinton should underscore that Pakistan’s relationships with the outside world will continue to suffer in the absence of evidence that the government is taking meaningful steps to promote the rule of law, political freedom and economic reform.

The president should also address the Pakistani people directly through local media. Such an address could remind Pakistanis of the close association between the two countries during the Cold War; urge that Pakistan join the majority of the world in its embrace of open markets and political freedom; and underscore the importance for Pakistan to take steps that would make it possible to achieve a more normal, peaceful relationship with India.

By contrast, the day the presidential party spends in Bangladesh will be relaxing, a chance to highlight a Muslim society that is deriving the benefits of economic and political reform and good relations with its non-Muslim neighbors and the West.

But this is secondary: The true test of the trip will come in India and Pakistan, two countries sure to have a great deal of impact on the world. The only question is whether it will be for better or worse.