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Open letter to the President

The Honorable William J. Clinton
The White House
Washington, DC

Dear Mr. President:

Your decision to visit India, Bangladesh and Pakistan—the three principal countries of South Asia which together are home to one out of every five people in the world—is to be welcomed. These are important countries whose futures will affect the course of the post-Cold War world and the status of major U.S. interests. The trip—the first by an American president to India in twenty-two years, to Pakistan in thirty, and the first ever to Bangladesh—provides an opportunity not only to promote these interests but also (in ways not unlike your visits to China and Africa) to provide a rounded picture of a part of the world that is truly foreign to most Americans.

South Asia is a far more dangerous place than it was only one or two years ago. In particular, the deterioration of the internal situation in Pakistan and the relationship between Pakistan and India sharply limits what you can hope to accomplish during the journey. There are numerous developments that account for this deterioration: the ill-advised decision by the previous Pakistani government to seize Indian positions across the Line of Control in Kashmir last summer, a decision that destroyed the positive momentum that had been created by the meeting between the Indian and Pakistani leaders only months before in Lahore; Pakistan’s October coup, in which General Pervez Musharraf took power from the elected government of Nawaz Sharif; the December 1999 hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane in which many Indians suspect a Pakistani hand; and provocative public statements by officials in both countries.

The net result of these events is that relations between India and Pakistan have sunk to a dangerous level, one that all too easily could lead to conflict. Pakistan’s leaders appear to be emboldened by the possession of nuclear weapons, believing that India is now limited in what it can do in retaliation lest it risk a nuclear conflict. Pakistan’s government is either unable or unwilling to rein in support for Kashmiri, Afghan, Arab, and other “militants” who use Pakistan or Pakistani-controlled parts of Kashmir as a sanctuary from which to attack positions on the Indian side of the Line of Control. There is a widely held view in Pakistan that if it can provoke enough of a crisis, the United States and the world will be forced to step in and resolve the Kashmir matter in some manner that Pakistan would view as preferable to the status quo. In India, meanwhile, the government is unwilling to resume official dialogue with Pakistan until violations of the Line of Control end. One encounters mounting Indian despair over the apparently diminished potential to reach some accommodation with Pakistan and, as a result, increasing talk of retaliating with military force and teaching Pakistan a lesson.

The challenge for the trip and for U.S. foreign policy toward South Asia for the remainder of your administration is to address current tensions without losing sight of the longer term U.S. interest in forging closer ties with the states of the region and India in particular. Four goals stand out: 1) to build a post-Cold War relationship with India that expands economic and other forms of interaction and cooperation between the United States and India; 2) to stem the drift toward conflict between India and Pakistan and urge both countries to take steps that would stabilize or even reduce their growing nuclear and missile competition; 3) to persuade Pakistan to embrace economic reform, the rule of law, and more responsible behavior in the realm of terrorism; and 4) to highlight the potential success of Bangladesh as a democratic, moderate Islamic country.


The lion’s share of your time with Indian officials should be devoted to broad-based 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: the future mandate of the WTO; ground rules for humanitarian intervention; managing relations with Russia and China; the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific area. (In this latter discussion, you should explain U.S. concerns about China, thereby underscoring that the United States has not “chosen” China over India.) It would be helpful to institutionalize regular U.S.-Indian exchanges not only in these areas but also in those involving energy, terrorism, the environment, and various aspects of economic relations. You should use those inducements you have at your disposal—including waiving U.S. opposition to international financial institution lending for non-basic human needs purposes and reducing the number of Indian firms currently limited in what they can receive from U.S. companies—in order to underscore the U.S. commitment to expanding economic ties and improving U.S. relations with India across the board.

It is essential to resist the temptation to place ambitious, nuclear weapons-related goals at the center of U.S. 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 are you well placed to pressure India to sign the CTBT given the failure of the U.S. Senate to ratify the treaty.

Instead, you would be wise to adopt more modest but still significant goals in the nuclear realm: to support and encourage India’s formal and informal policies prohibiting the export of technology or weaponry that would contribute to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems elsewhere; to avoid any new nuclear weapons tests and ultimately sign the CTBT; and to talk directly with Pakistan and where appropriate China about ways to increase the stability and transparency of their respective nuclear weapons and missile arsenals through such confidence building measures as de-alerting (separating warheads from delivery systems so as to buy time in a crisis), the creation and use of hot-lines, and the avoidance of flight-testing missiles in the direction of one another’s territory.

It would be neither advisable nor possible to go to India and avoid serious discussion of Pakistan. The fact that you are stopping in Pakistan despite U.S. misgivings over Pakistani behavior places you in a good position to urge Indian leaders to engage General Musharraf and his government directly and to consider what India might do to build ties to Pakistan’s society and economy. You should make the case in private and in public 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 resources and attention to dealing with a hostile, unstable Pakistan.

Kashmir is a subject better left mostly for private conversation. You should note U.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 while it is too soon to consider resolving the problem, 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.


You are correct to visit Pakistan. Not going would only have sent the signal that the United States had written off Pakistan, something that would only strengthen the hands of those Pakistanis hostile to the United States and weaken the status of those elites who favor a democratic Pakistan with close ties to the West. Moreover, Pakistan is a country in danger of failing, one beset by a host of internal divisions and challenges; more not less engagement by the United States is called for if the nightmare of a Pakistan that comes to resemble Afghanistan or Sudan is to be avoided.

Still, visiting Pakistan at this juncture promises to be a risky and difficult undertaking, lest the United States appear to be providing legitimacy to the military leadership or soft-pedaling American opposition to reckless Pakistani actions that include the decision last summer to attack India or continuing support for violence in Kashmir. These risks can only be managed by crafting a nuanced blend of private and public messages.

Privately, you should let Pakistan’s leaders know that the United States will have little option but to designate their country as a state sponsor of terrorism (with all that entails in the way of sanctions under current law) if they do not act more decisively against this threat. You should voice strong criticism of their provocative posture toward the Kashmir insurgency, making clear that they and their country would not be better off if Pakistan foments a war with India over Kashmir or anything else. You should urge that Pakistan’s leaders adopt a more realistic approach to what diplomacy might accomplish vis-à-vis Kashmir in the foreseeable future and drop their insistence that Kashmir constitute the core of any dialogue with India. And you 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.

It is essential that an opportunity be found for you to address the Pakistani people directly over local media. Such an address could remind Pakistanis of the long and 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.


The agenda for the Bangladesh portion of the presidential visit is less difficult but important all the same. Bangladesh, once derided as an international basket case, now enjoys an extraordinary record of economic and social development. It also benefits from significant natural gas reserves which, if produced in larger quantities and exported, could contribute to both national and regional economic growth. The political picture is somewhat less bright, as all too often the government and important segments of the population are at loggerheads.

The presidential visit offers an opportunity to showcase where Bangladesh has succeeded. It is also a chance to highlight that a Muslim society can derive the benefits of economic and political reform and enjoy good relations with its non-Muslim neighbors and the West.

Back Home

After returning from the region, you should address the Congress and/or the American people directly about the trip. Such an address could help educate Americans about the significance of these countries and South Asia while sending selected messages to the governments and peoples of the region. In addition, you could use the address to ask Congress to adopt legislation and amend existing laws, which now make it more difficult for the United States to carry out an effective policy toward India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Providing an executive waiver for the sanctions currently in force against Pakistan as a result of the October military coup would better position the United States to provide assistance that could encourage partial reforms. In addition, the current process of designating state sponsors of terrorism needs to be reformed to divorce the designation from penalties. Such separation—which again would give the executive branch greater flexibility—would allow the United States to support the provision of economic aid to Pakistan even if it were to be designated a state sponsor of terrorism; in such circumstances, assistance could help prevent Pakistan from collapsing and becoming far more of a source of terrorism and other problems than is currently the case.


Richard N. Haass
Chair, Independent Task Force on U.S. Policy Toward South Asia
Vice President and Director, Foreign Policy Studies, The Brookings Institution


Richard K. Betts
Director, National Security Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Bruce Blair
President, Center for Defense Information

Marshall Bouton
Executive Vice President, Asia Society

Michael T. Clark
Executive Director, U.S.-India Business Council

Stephen P. Cohen
Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, The Brookings Institution

Zachary S. Davis
International Nuclear Affairs Specialist, Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress

Francine Frankel
Director, Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania

Šumit Ganguly
Visiting Fellow, Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University

Neil Joeck
Political Analyst, Directorate for Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and International Security, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Geoffrey Kemp
Director, Regional Strategic Programs, The Nixon Center

Robert Manning
Director, Asia Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Meghan L. O’Sullivan
Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, The Brookings Institution

Robert Oakley
Former Ambassador to Pakistan

George Perkovich
Director, Secure World Program, W. Alton Jones Foundation

Daniel Poneman
Partner, Hogan and Hartson, L.L.P.

Gideon Rose
Deputy Director, National Security Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Teresita Schaeffer
Director, South Asia Program, Center for Strategic & International Studies

General Gordon Sullivan
President, Association of the U.S. Army

Shirin Tahir-Kheli
Director, South Asia Program, Foreign Policy Institute, Johns Hopkins University, SAIS

Ashley Tellis
Senior Policy Analyst, RAND, Washington, DC

Frank Wisner
Former Ambassador to India

Note: Those signing the letter endorse its general policy thrust and judgments but not necessarily every finding and recommendation. The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and should not be attributed to the staff, officers or trustees of the Brookings Institution.


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