WASHINGTON -- Pakistan's defiance of the United States in testing nuclear weapons was a sobering reminder of America's limited ability to control some of the world's most highly volatile .. and dangerous regions.
Besides being unable to prevent an arms race in South Asia, the United States has failed to block Russia's transfer of missile and nuclear technology to Iran.
At the United Nations, the once-solid U.S.-led front to uncover the extent of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction is starting to crumble. International talks to halt the spread of nuclear-weapons fuel are dormant. And a longtime U.S. goal -- Russia's ratification of a long-range nuclear arms treaty -- remains stalled in the Russian parliament.
"I cannot believe that we are about to start the 21st century by having the Indian subcontinent repeat the worst mistakes of the 20th century," a weary-sounding President Clinton lamented yesterday, about 10 hours after he had pleaded unsuccessfully withPrime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan not to test the nuclear weapons.
Early yesterday, Pakistan matched India's five nuclear explosions of two weeks ago with five of its own.
In struggling to prevent an arms race in South Asia, the administration confronted a particularly daunting combination of long-standing mutual hatred between India and Pakistan, fierce domestic political pressure in each country and lack of international cooperation.
Not even a U.S. offer to let Pakistan take possession of 28 F-16 warplanes it has purchased but been barred from acquiring was enough to deter Islamabad.
"This is an extraordinarily difficult issue," Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott said yesterday. "The ill feeling between these two countries goes back to literally their birth as independent free countries. And the military, and indeed nuclear, dimension of that ill will between them has also been around for a long time."
U.S. officials lay heavy blame for the crisis on the election this year of a nationalist government in India that was determined to proceed along the path of developing a nuclear arsenal.
Though U.S. intelligence failed to detect the preparations for the actual test conducted by India, there is scant evidence that such knowledge would have made much difference.
In a letter April 3, Sharif warned Clinton of India's apparent intentions -- a warning that proved prescient. India's test produced initial euphoria among that nation's 900 million people. Indians have long resented being accorded second-class status next to the world's declared nuclear powers -- the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain.
After the Indian test, Clinton dispatched Talbott and others to try to dissuade Sharif from following suit. But, Talbott said yesterday, "I came away from Islamabad with a sober awareness of how hard this was for the prime minister and his colleagues."
Despite the threat of U.S. sanctions that would hit Pakistan's poorer and more fragile economy much harder than India's, Sharif bumped up against an overwhelming public demand to counter India's tests.
The United States, meanwhile, stood virtually alone among the world's major countries in imposing severe punishment against India. Overall, complained Pakistan's U.N. representative, Ahmad Kamal, the international reaction to the Indian test was "weak and flabby."
Not even close U.S. ally Britain, whose relations with the nations on the Indian subcontinent, which it used to rule, are sensitive, joined immediately in imposing sanctions. Britain has since joined in postponing major international loans to India at the World Bank and other international institutions, and European countries may slap India with trade sanctions later this year.
Clinton also had to contend with powerful friendships in the region from the Cold War period. Russia maintains ties with India, and China has supplied Pakistan with nuclear and missile technology.
Pakistan has complained that Russia was all but silent on India's nuclear test. China may have quietly urged Pakistan to show restraint but appears to have done little to prevent yesterday's test.
Nor did the organization of developing nations known as the Nonaligned Movement condemn India, despite a push by Chile to do so at the group's conference last week in Cartagena, Colombia.
The Clinton administration balked at Pakistan's price for agreeing not to test nuclear weapons -- a security guarantee that would commit the United States to respond militarily to any Indian nuclear attack on Pakistan.
Pakistan's nuclear test was seized upon by some Republicans as a Clinton foreign policy failure.
"Our nonproliferation policies are in tatters," said Republican Rep. Doug Bereuter of Nebraska, chairman of the House International Relations subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific.
But some of the president's critics were more sympathetic.
"Every sparrow that falls from the sky cannot be our fault," said Lawrence S. Eagleburger, a former secretary of state who served under President George Bush.
Some analysts blame Congress as well for providing the White House with only the bluntest possible instruments: notably, harsh sanctions that will penalize Pakistan more than India even though India started the latest arms race.
Despite its failure to prevent India and Pakistan from testing, the United States can now work to try to prevent those nations from turning their capability into actual weapons.
"All efforts of the international community should be focused on forestalling deployments and eventually persuading India and Pakistan to join some international agreements," said Jack Mendelsohn, deputy director of the independent Arms Control Association.
One way to do that, suggests Democratic Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, author of the law used to punish both India and Pakistan, is for Clinton to convene a South Asia security conference that would allow the nations in the volatile region to discuss economic issues, religion, borders and weapons.
But the United States, for now, is left with evidence of powerlessness as White House press secretary Mike McCurry acknowledged yesterday: "The United States of America, despite all of its wealth and its might, cannot control every event, every place in the world -- particularly in a place where for five decades now, governments have fought wars and people have lived with incredible tension."
Pub Date: 5/29/98