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The Rediff Interview/Ambassador Richard Boucher
'N-deal legislation will be introduced before week is out'
March 15, 2006
Ambassador Richard Boucher, the new assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs, is confident that legislation in Congress based on the draft proposal submitted to the leadership of the House International Relations Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the US-India civilian nuclear cooperation agreement by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be introduced in Congress before the week is out.
In an exclusive interview with rediff India Abroad -- his first after assuming his new position -- Boucher, who travelled with President George W Bush on Air Force One to India, said, "The next step is for the legislation to be introduced more formally and that will happen this week."
The erstwhile State Department spokesman, who in his capacity then as assistant secretary of state for public affairs, holds the unbroken record of being the spokesman for six different secretaries of state, also disclosed that next week senior Bush administration officials would travel to Vienna to participate in a Nuclear Suppliers Group meeting "to start talking to that group about how to make this happen in the international arena".
Boucher, who has been accompanying Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns -- the chief interlocutor in the negotiations with India on this deal -- and Robert Joseph, under secretary of state for arms control and international security, in briefing US lawmakers and their staffs on the civil-military separation plan agreement, while acknowledging that "it's very hard to predict Congressional processes", however asserted that the administration does not believe "there is any reason why it has to take a long time", and predicted approval of the deal before the next meeting of the NSG in May.
Needless to say, the civilian nuclear agreement has now become the centrepiece of the US-India strategic partnership, and the administration last week submitted a draft proposal to Congress with regard to the separation plan. What's going to be the modus operandi now?
The next step is for legislation to be introduced more formally and that will happen this week. You'll probably see that this week. We've already been on the Hill talking to members -- talked to a lot of members -- and did some staff briefings trying to answer all the questions that came up and getting them ready to really understand what this agreement does and where it fits and other things. Next week, there is a NSG meeting and some of us will go out to start talking to that group about how to make this happen in the international arena. So we are working this. We've also seen American business come forward, we've seen a lot of op-ed pieces by different people in the strategic community. I guess there has been some activity by Indian American groups already. I expect there will be a lot more of that. So it's becoming a good subject of discussion for people who are trying to answer the questions that come up, but also just making clear the big importance of this -- what it means strategically for US-India cooperation, the doors that it opens to cooperation across the board with India. And if you look at the president's trip -- everything from defence to mangoes, fighter planes, nuclear, everything in between, science, agriculture -- it's all there. We are cooperating across the board and the significance of this agreement and the reason to support this agreement is because it opens up that kind of cooperation.
You said some legislation may be expected this week, but I had an interview with Senator (Richard) Lugar (chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee) yesterday and I asked him specifically (if there would be any legislation this week) and he said he doesn't expect any legislation till around Easter?
I am sorry. I may have been imprecise. The members, somebody in the Senate or the House has to introduce legislation and then it gets taken up by a committee for hearings and eventually a vote. So, what I was talking about was the beginning of the process, (but) what he was talking about was the end of the process.
In the statement put out by Congressmen (Henry) Hyde (Republican chairman of the House International Relations Committee) and (Tom) Lantos (California Democrat and ranking member of the committee), they spoke about agreeing to introduce enabling legislation, but at the same time attaching some conditions, which the administration has warned would be deal-breakers and would scuttle the agreement. Were you disappointed that while they were saying that they are going to introduce enabling legislation, at the same time, they have spoken about the fact that they will be attaching some conditions?
No. I am not disappointed. I haven't seen their specific statement or their specific conditions they might be talking about. But that's to be expected at this stage. We are in the state now of taking this up, about discussing it, what form the legislation should take, how it should be structured, what are the issues involved here.We all know that there are a number of steps that need to take place in addition to legislation. You have the bilateral agreement that we have with India, you have the India-International Atomic Energy Agency agreement, a lot of things we have to do. There are a lot of questions on the Hill about timing, conditions, and we need to answer those. So I am not too surprised there are a lot of ideas out there now. But we will need to bring this together. Hopefully, bring it together quickly and that's why we are embarking on these discussions, hearing these ideas and trying to answer the questions.
The administration's expectation is like you say to get a bill going by this week is to get something really moving before you'll go to the NSG in May because I guess it would be good to present an approved bill to the NSG so that they could reach some sort of consensus. But aren't you cutting it a little fine because Congressional sources are telling me that this thing is going to take months and could even take a year. So aren't you'll being overly optimistic?
It's very hard to predict Congressional processes. We don't think there is any reason why it has to take a long time. So with goodwill and a desire to work on this hard, we should be able to do it. We know there are a lot of supporters on the Hill. They need to understand the sort of big importance of this as well as the urgency of it. But we are working all these things in parallel -- trying to get them all to come together at an early moment, at the right moment. So, as I said, we will start the discussion with the NSG next week in the hopes of getting the NSG ready for action in May. We have already started the discussion with the Hill to get a bill introduced this week in the hope that we can bring that to fruition around the same time or by the same time. India needs to start its discussion with the IAEA, we need to start the discussions with India on the bilateral agreements. So what you'll see is all these things sort of going on in parallel, trying to bring them all -- each one to fruition at the appropriate time.
Is the reason you believe that it shouldn't take too long because the administration has pretty much briefed the Hill. Nick (Burns), Bob (Joseph), have been up there a couple of times, and now what you'll really need to do is sort of give them more briefings and details on the separation plan?
Yes, because the basic concept has been in last July when it was announced. We've done a lot of talking to the Hill in the meantime. The separation plan is now out in public -- that's the new element. But everybody's understood what we are doing with India, where we are heading with India, what type of legislation would be required and now it's time people have to look at the specifics obviously and some of the specific questions. But the big question is about, is this the right thing to do with India? Frankly, we think it's been dealt with many times since last July when the big issue was announced. So we'll be working it and trying to deal with that. But as I said, there are some supporters on the Hill. There are many members of the India Caucus -- and we'll see what some of them have to say when legislation comes around and there are a lot of people who are wanting to see this done just because they know it's very good and very important for the overall relationship between the United States and India.
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