Warm feelings in India are a change for Bush

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- President Bush does not typically find relief in travel overseas, rushing through countries whose people and leaders have grown alienated from the United States during his tenure.

But after weeks of unpleasant distractions and sagging approval ratings at home, Bush departs today for a rare place where he and the U.S. remain popular: India.

Bush is presiding over the closest ties in history between Washington and New Delhi, two capitals that for decades eyed each other with suspicion as India aligned largely with the Soviet Union and pursued a nuclear arms race with Pakistan.

One recent survey, by the Pew Research Center, found that more than 50 percent of Indians approve of Bush's performance. Despite widespread opposition to the war in Iraq, which is expected to prompt some protests during his visit - and a left-leaning government that relies on support from communist parties - more than seven in 10 Indians look favorably upon the United States.

Analysts attribute much of the good feelings to the war on Islamic terrorism pursued by the Bush administration. India, a nation of 1 billion people that includes 150 million Muslims, has faced years of terrorist attacks linked to the dispute with mostly Muslim Pakistan over the Kashmir region.

"The polling the president gets in India is better than the polling he gets here," said Michael Green, Bush's former Asia adViser, who is now a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"The Indians see a lot of common purpose between the U.S. and India as multireligious, multiethnic democracies. Both are concerned about the war on terror, and that sets the basis for this trip and for this relationship."

While U.S. popularity soars in India, Bush's trip also includes a daylong stay in Pakistan, where anti-American sentiment has grown following a U.S. strike on alleged terrorists in that country and violent protests over Danish cartoons mocking the prophet Mohammad.

Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, who took power in a military coup in 1999, has proven a crucial ally in the war on terrorism, though his continued control over the government and the military has forced Bush to balance the alliance against his call for political reforms.

Analysts expect Bush to make only token efforts at pressing Musharraf on reforms. Bush hinted that his nudging will be friendly when he told a Pakistani television interviewer last week that he would "talk to my buddy ... about his goals for a democratic Pakistan."

Security is likely to be tight. Six years ago, when President Bill Clinton flew to Pakistan from India, he traveled aboard an unmarked military jet rather than the easily identifiable Air Force One, which was sent first as a decoy. But unlike Clinton, who focused his attention on Musharraf and stuck to serious matters, Bush will try to show the public a more cheery image - attending a cricket match and a state dinner.

The warming of U.S.-Indian relations was initiated by Clinton, who visited in 2000, but officials in both governments say the relationship has been pushed to new heights by Bush.

Peter Wallsten and Paul Watson write for the Los Angeles Times.

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