Be careful what you wish for. That is the lesson of the Bush administration's newly unveiled deal to provide India with nuclear fuel and technology. For years, opponents of the White House's foreign policy have called for more diplomacy--for further inspections in Iraq, for direct talks with North Korea, for any talks whatsoever on Iran's nuclear program. Now it appears that, in eschewing negotiation, the Bush administration was doing the United States a favor. Because, when the Bushies negotiate, they're extremely dangerous.

Let's start with the very purpose of the agreement. Although U.S. assistance will be intended only for India's civilian power program, it can't avoid helping India's nuclear weapons program. India has limited uranium supplies, which constrain its civilian and military nuclear programs. With its reactors now guaranteed a steady supply of fuel, India's indigenous uranium can be devoted to making weapons. Given that India is a friend, one might argue that this isn't a problem. But India's enemy is an unstable, nuclear-armed nation rife with Islamic extremism. If India expands its atomic cache, Pakistan will almost certainly follow suit, and any growth of Pakistan's nuclear industry exacerbates the threat of nuclear terrorism.

Indeed, Pakistan is a case study in the danger of the "friendly pro- liferation" Bush is now proposing. During the final decade of the cold war, the United States turned a blind eye to Pakistan's burgeoning nuclear program because Islamabad was a key anti-Soviet ally. That permissive attitude changed when the Soviets left Kabul, but by then it was too late. Soon Pakistan was producing nuclear weapons and selling nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea, and Libya. A.Q. Khan--the legendary impresario of its proliferation network--has been arrested, but his legacy remains: A recent survey of Washington's national security establishment found that Pakistan is thought to be the state most likely to transfer nuclear technology to terrorists in the next three to five years.

Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns has argued that India (unlike, say, Iran) deserves nuclear technology because it has not violated international proliferation laws. But this is true in only the most literal sense. In fact, India has spent the past 40 years in a sort of nuclear no-man's-land, one of only three nations that has refused to sign the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which forbids all but five nations (Britain, France, China, the United States, and the Soviet Union) from possessing nukes. India disclaimed any interest in the bomb but protested that it could not abide the treaty's "nuclear apartheid."

Instead, it continued with its program of "peaceful" nuclear research--using a Canadian reactor and U.S. heavy water--and, in 1974, exploded a not-so-peaceful nuclear device. Washington, angered by India's deception, quickly passed laws to ensure that U.S. atomic technology would never again be abused that way. It then established an international cartel, called the Nuclear Suppliers Group, to encourage other states to similarly restrict their exports.

These roadblocks hampered, but did not stop, India. In 1998, it conducted a series of nuclear tests, which led rival Pakistan to respond in kind, triggering an open arms race. The Clinton administration condemned the tests and refused to acknowledge either state as an official nuclear power. It hoped to eventually integrate India and Pakistan into the system of treaties, initiatives, and norms that restrict the spread of nuclear weapons.

In other words, if India has not broken the rules, it is only because it has ignored them altogether. And, although its record is far better than Pakistan's, its behavior has hardly been exemplary. Even putting aside India's illicit use of U.S. technology in the '70s, the Bush administration itself has sanctioned nine different Indian "entities" for proliferating WMD technology, mostly to Iran. In fact, the Indian government maintains that Iran has an "inalienable right" to enrich uranium.

But, in 2005, such quibbles fell victim to the administration's need for a positive foreign policy legacy. In his first term, President Bush had shunned foreign policy realism, with its notion of international relations as a game of chess in which nations manipulate alliances and rivalries. Bush was determined to make the world play by his rules. By his second term, however, he was losing at his own game, in Iraq and elsewhere, and Condoleezza Rice--a student of great-power politics--tried her hand at grand strategy. India, to which Bush had already made overtures, was a logical target: a rising great power and, even better, a democracy wary of China and fearful of Islamic terrorism.

So, in mid-2005, the president tried to buy India's friendship. Skipping over less radioactive carrots (like arms sales or G-8 membership), Bush offered India nuclear fuel and technology, in effect signaling acceptance of India's atomic arsenal. All that remained was to hammer out the terms of a "123 agreement," named for the section of U.S. code governing nuclear sales. But it took five rounds of negotiations before the agreement was finalized, as diplomats haggled over whether the Indians would allow us to restrict how they might use our technology. Yes, the administration that doesn't negotiate negotiated the terms of its own gift--and lost.

Now we have even less leverage with which to encourage India (and therefore Pakistan) to join the nonproliferation regime. Burns has claimed that the deal itself ties India to the regime, but the 123 agreement does no such thing. It does not, for example, require India to eschew nuclear testing. It does not forbid India from producing further fissile material for weapons (in fact, it will facilitate the production of plutonium). It does not require India to place all its nuclear facilities under international safeguards. It does not commit India to pursuing eventual nuclear disarmament. What it does is reward bad behavior.

Of course, the Bush administration has never cared much for rules. Robert Blackwill--one of the deal's architects and now a lobbyist for the Indian government--has dismissed nonpro- liferation as a concern of "nagging nannies." The implication is that he, Rice, and Burns have greater geopolitical vision, that they recognize the value of closer relations with a "natural ally" like India. But that argument is backward: It is precisely because India is a natural ally that bribes were unnecessary. Was India ever going to support Islamic terrorism? And now administration policy will have the effect of spurring nuclear development in a politically unstable country that has a horrible proliferation record and is thought to be harboring Osama bin Laden. Perhaps chess just isn't their game.

By The Editors