For decades, the official policy of the United States has been to discourage nuclear proliferation, particularly in southern Asia.

But the U.S. Senate now says: No more.

At the prodding of the Bush administration, the Senate voted 85-12 to allow the U.S. to ship nuclear fuel and technology to India as part of an initiative to encourage the expansion of nuclear programs in that country. At a time when the Bush administration is suggesting the U.S. might need to go to war to block nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea, the Senate has given its stamp of approval to proliferation in one of the most volatile regions of the world.Describing the vote as “a horrible mistake,” Senator Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, said the vote repudiated decades of U.S. policy of “telling the world it’s our responsibility and our major goal to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.”

The White House says that the scheme to have the U.S. supply the building blocks for a nuclear arsenal to India will not actually do so. The spin claims that the U.S. will only be supplying civilian nuclear fuel. But, of course, by filling the demand for civilian fuel, the U.S. will free India up to use domestic uranium for development of nuclear weapons. That, in turn, will almost certainly lead to moves by neighboring countries — particularly Pakistan and China — to build up their nuclear stockpiles.

Most Democratic and Republican senators backed the India Nuclear Cooperation Promotion Act, which will now be reconciled with legislation endorsed in July by the House. To make matters worse, the Senate overwhelmingly rejected an amendment by California Democrat Barbara Boxer that would have asked India to cut off all military-to-military ties with Iran and an amendment proposed by Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold to require “that United States nuclear cooperation with India does nothing to assist, encourage, or induce India to manufacture or acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”

Joining Dorgan, Boxer and Feingold in voting against the measure were nine other senators: Hawaii’s Daniel Akaka, New Mexico’s Jeff Bingaman, West Virginia’s Robert Byrd, North Dakota’s Kent Conrad, Minnesota’s Mark Dayton, Iowa’s Tom Harkin, South Dakota’s Tim Johnson, Massachusetts’ Ted Kennedy and Vermont’s Patrick Leahy.

It fell to Feingold to sum up the disappointment of the few who tried to maintain a U.S. commitment to preventing proliferation when he said of the legislation: “It fundamentally changes over 30 years of nonproliferation policy and will have serious consequences for our national security. This bill, supported by the same Administration that has failed to stem the nuclear weapons efforts of North Korea and Iran, flies in the face of our country’s nonproliferation obligations and only contributes to a developing nuclear arms race. Unfortunately, my amendment to ensure that this deal would not break our nonproliferation obligations and help India’s nuclear weapons program failed. The U.S. relationship with India is one of our most important, and I fully support developing closer strategic ties with India. But I had to vote against this bill because it hurts, rather than helps, our national security.”

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