Oval: Inside Bush’s Speedy Asian Diplomacy

It was the worst-kept secret in presidential travel. After weeks of rumors, President George W. Bush finally stopped in Afghanistan as he made his way to India and Pakistan—his first visit to the country that was once the central battlefield in the war on terror.

Like Bush’s Thanksgiving Day trip to Iraq in 2003, the details of the president’s trip to Kabul were closely held until the very last moment. Yet White House officials and reporters had whispered about the possibility of an Afghanistan visit for weeks. Bush was the only key member of his administration who had yet to visit Kabul. First Lady Laura Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney made high-profile visits last year, while other administration officials, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have made repeated visits.

Administration officials did all they could to stamp out the rumors—even telling White House reporters writing an advance logistical report on Bush’s trip that there would be no major deviations in the schedule. In fact, Joe Hagin, the deputy White House chief of staff, pitched the idea to the president nearly two months ago. Yet for the all the secrecy, word of the president’s visit still leaked. A few hours before Bush flew into Bagram Air Base north of Kabul, a wire report announced the Bush visit, citing an anonymous Afghan official.

Bush’s trip to Afghanistan is a reminder of everything that has gone right for Bush, and much that has gone wrong, since 9/11. The president had ample reason to celebrate that nation’s embrace of democracy, its relative stability and its multinational peacekeeping. He had less reason to sound so assured about the hunt for Al Qaeda’s top leadership. Bush said he was “confident” that Osama bin Laden would be “brought to justice,” citing Pakistani efforts to capture the spiritual leader of the jihadi movement. “Part of my message to President [Pervez] Musharraf is that it’s important that we bring these people to justice,” Bush told reporters in Kabul. “He understands that. After all, they’ve tried to kill him four times.”

Yet five years after 9/11, President Bush is still making the case to Pakistan’s president that bin Laden threatens his regime. Why does Bush still need to deliver that message when the White House claims its alliance with Musharraf is so strong? Because Bush’s aides are fully aware that Musharraf faces strong internal opposition—both inside his government and on the streets—every time he makes a renewed assault on Al Qaeda suspects in his country’s lawless tribal regions. The president’s war on terror has long been compromised by Musharraf’s political problems. Bush’s national-security strategy, as his travels illustrate this week, is a long way from the unflinching pursuit of terrorists and shadowy enemies that has dominated the last two election cycles.

Case in point: the nuclear deal with India. In the run-up to the war in Iraq, the White House set a high bar on nuclear issues. Citing the examples of South Africa, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, Bush’s aides insisted that the only test of intent was “full cooperation and transparency.” That was when the debate was about disarmament. Nobody is talking about dismantling India’s nuclear defenses. Yet the negotiations over India’s civilian nuclear program have proved exceptionally difficult because of a distinct lack of “full cooperation and transparency.”

Steve Hadley, Bush’s national-security adviser, told reporters that the sticking point with India was “getting some clarification from the Indian side about what’s in the civil side and what’s on the military side, not only in terms of what exists now, at this time, but what are going to be the ground rules going forward.” Negotiators have been struggling with India’s clarity and transparency for several months, as they try to square the circle of recognizing a nuclear power operating outside the world’s nuclear treaty.

Under any circumstances, these would be complex talks. But they are all the more difficult because of the Bush administration’s strategy. Unlike its approach to Iran, the White House has chosen to lean on India on its own, without the support of the international community by it side. Iran casts a long shadow over Bush’s nuclear talks with India: Iran is a strategic ally of India, yet the United States is counting on India’s support to halt Iran’s nuclear program.

Small wonder that Bush’s aides are now playing down the prospects of a nuclear deal. The White House pledged last summer to assist India with its civilian nuclear program, in part by providing nuclear technology. But when he was asked about the negotiations during a press availability in Afghanistan, Bush called it a “difficult issue.” “Hopefully we can reach an agreement,” Bush said. “If not, we’ll continue to work on it until we do.” At the same time, his top aides began talking up other agreements expected this week including an agriculture initiative. “This trip is not a civil nuclear-power trip,” Rice told reporters during a briefing on Air Force One. “This trip is a trip about the relationship between the United States and India … This is a broad relationship that is deepening.”

As the president arrived in New Dehli on Wednesday evening, Indian TV remained intensely focused on two things other than a deepening relationship: the nuclear talks and why the American president wasn’t planning to see more of their country. Locals can’t forget the last time an American president visited India. Back in 2000, President Clinton spent nearly a week touring the country, famously visiting rural villages and wowing Indian politicians during a speech before the Parliament. Reminders are everywhere. At the Sheraton Hotel where Bush and the press will spend the next three days, the hotel’s restaurant has a dish named after Clinton, who dined there several times when he stayed in the hotel.

Bush’s visit this week will be speedy and meticulously coordinated. Indeed, the president won’t even visit the Taj Mahal—an omission he blamed on the White House scheduler. “If I were the scheduler, maybe I’d do things differently,” he told a group of Indian journalists last week. It’s something that has puzzled the locals, at a time when Bush hopes to deepen economic and political ties with the world’s largest democracy. It also frustrates his own aides, who have repeatedly pushed the president to spend time on the softer, cultural side of his foreign travel. According to those aides, it is the president—not his scheduler—who cannot be convinced to carve out time to respect the local culture.

Sometimes there’s no escaping it. On Thursday evening, Indian President Abdul Kalam will host a state dinner for the president and First Lady. On the menu: a variety of Indian delicacies, including several fish and lamb dishes. Not on the menu: chicken. Rediff, a New Delhi-based news site, reports the Indian president took poultry off the menu amid fears of bird flu. Instead, Bush will be served a special dish by the Indian president: broccoli soup. Kalam’s press secretary says the Indian president wanted to give the Bushes a taste of “home flavor.” Yet Bush, like his dad, is known to detest broccoli. Back in 2001, Bush visited Mexican President Vicente Fox’s ranch, which is nestled alongside fields of broccoli. Asked by reporters about his feelings on the stalky vegetable, Bush gave a thumbs down, and said, “Make it cauliflower.”