One of the unpublicized gifts President Clinton carried with him on his recent visit to India was a decision to lift sanctions against 51 companies and agencies involved in weapons programs.
The move to allow US exports to Indian munitions makers came just two days before the president's trip, sending the message that proliferation was supposed to be a gesture of goodwill.
The 51 arms factories and agencies were among some 300 ''entities'' in India and Pakistan that had been slapped with sanctions after both countries conducted nuclear tests in May 1998, sparking the worst security scare since the end of the Cold War.
All that seems forgotten now, two years after the tests.
And in India's case, it is more than forgiven. On his visit in March, President Clinton declared that there would be ''a closer and qualitatively new relationship between India and the United States''.
That statement has brought US arms control policy full circle in an incredibly short time. On May 12, 1998, after India announced its nuclear tests, Clinton vowed to enforce ''very stringent provisions'' of US sanctions law. ''I intend to implement them fully,'' he said.
Since then, both the administration and Congress have decided against playing the bad cop on the subcontinent. The turning point came when lawmakers discovered that the United States would miss out on wheat sales to Pakistan if the comprehensive sanctions were enforced.
Senators led by Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, began whittling away at the nuclear penalties, which had been authored by John Glenn, the former senator from Ohio. Now a move is underway to waive all remaining economic curbs against India, effectively welcoming the ''gate-crasher'' to the nuclear club.
As India's biggest trading partner, the United States simply has too much to sell. We have high-speed computers, chips, and software that India's huge civilian and military markets want. Thanks to its running conflict with Pakistan, India has boosted its defense budget by 28 percent, making it an even juicier prize.
Administration officials explain the about-face frankly as a product of pressure from Congress and exporters.
''You're in a political environment where you have all kinds of inputs other than the nonproliferation and arms control inputs,'' said a State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Most of the breaks have gone to Indian factories that make conventional arms, like the artillery shells that are lobbed at Pakistani positions in disputed Kashmir nearly every day. But there have also been some apparent slips in the area of weapons of mass destruction.
India's Combat Vehicle Research and Development Establishment - the CVRDE - and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research are two examples. Both have appeared on a British government list of buyers that ''have procured goods and/or technology for Weapons of Mass Destruction programs.'' Both were granted access to US high-tech goods in March.
According to the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, the CVRDE is a maker of missile carriers, while the Tata Institute has engaged in nuclear work that includes fusion research. The US government said in November 1998 that both entities were ''involved in nuclear or missile activities.''
But aside from the risks, there is a broader sense that the United States does not know what it is doing with its sanctions policies. It imposes sanctions one day and lifts them the next.
In the meantime, the bilateral belligerence of India and Pakistan has changed little, if at all. Neither has signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty or embraced the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The two sides are not negotiating. If anything, the region may be even less stable since the military coup in Pakistan last October. Both armies remain on alert.
Only the United States appears to have changed its position since the nuclear crisis. After favoring Pakistan for years, it now smiles on India. And sanctions or no sanctions, it has few results to show other than exports.
If there is strength in consistency, the US policy on sanctions and arms control has none. Nor is there any assurance that it will continue on its present and oft-altered course. For the time being, the administration has chosen engagement with India, but no one can say for how long.
''That's what we're up to right now,'' said one US official. ''Three months from now, who knows?''
The question is not whether sanctions work but whether they should be in constant flux.
Michael Lelyveld is a journalist based in Lexington.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company