US makes up for 20 years of neglect

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The Independent Online

President Clinton arrives in New Delhi today to start a tour of the Indian subcontinent presented in Washington as opening a new chapter of diplomacy and trade.

The visit, many months in the planning, makes Mr Clinton only the second American President to visit the region in more than two decades, and the first to visit Bangladesh.

Mr Clinton's determination to visit the subcontinent before he leaves office next February was well known, as was his feeling that the significance and potential of India had been underestimated for years.

But seen in the context of Washington's overture to Iran at the end of last week, the President's week-long trip appears not just as an attempt to address years of neglect, but as part of a much wider shift in US policy for the whole region.

The fading of the former Soviet Union as Washington's enemy number one was accompanied by renewed attention to the Middle East, centred on Israel, and to China.

But there was always a gap in the middle, which the US straddled uncomfortably, tilting to Pakistan for its strategic position, to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait for their oil, demonising Iran and Iraq by turns, and, eventually, both.

The result was a perception of American weakness in the region that was embarrassingly underlined when the US was unable to muster a quorum at a regional economic conference it sponsored last year.

The shift in policy to Iran, announced on Friday by the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, encompassed much more than the ending of sanctions on carpets and caviar that made the headlines, more even than a desire to settle outstanding financial and legal claims and to "put this issue behind us once and for all". It amounted to the de facto end of a 20-year policy of "isolation and containment" and an invitation to Iran to step into its role as a regional power.

Full normalisation of US relations with Iran is not around the corner, but it is considerably closer than it was this time last week. And by next week, there could be a new agenda for US relations with India, the world's largest democracy, a nuclear power and a nation forecast to overtake China this century in population size and wealth of its citizens.

One view in New Delhi hard to refute is that India's first nuclear test two years ago shocked the US into taking India seriously and reviewing its tilt to Pakistan.

But Washington insists it was not only India's nuclear capability, and that of Pakistan, that encouraged rapprochement, but the desire to supplement existing alliances, such as that with Israel, with a more open and even-handed approach elsewhere.

In State Department argot, this is the shift from the bipolar to the multipolar post-Cold War world.