CHIANG MAI, Thailand — U.S. President Bill Clinton’s upcoming visit to South Asia is praiseworthy, but critics have raised questions concerning the presidential trip.

If Clinton’s purpose is to mediate the bitter rivalry between India and Pakistan, it is doubtful whether both parties are prepared to accept the offer. A mediator in such a case can be likened to a surgeon possessing icy precision, concentration and determination, who is ready to operate on a nearly doomed patient. In this case, however, there are two patients, and the consent of both is needed for the operation. As analysts point out, Clinton is overestimating the power of his personality to get the two sides talking again.

With hindsight, it can be argued the best opportunity for Washington came several months ago when Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee took his famous bus trip to Lahore. At that time, signs pointed to a general thaw in Indo-Pakistani bilateral relations, and both sides sorely needed the momentum that U.S. involvement would have provided. Unfortunately, however, Washington failed to grasp the moment, and the chance was lost. Now, in the aftermath of the Kargil conflagration and the leadership change in Pakistan, the situation is much more complicated.

Washington has a vast agenda in the region due to its comprehensive relations with all countries in the region. Because all discussions tend to be monopolized by questions on arbitration and whether the U.S. president should visit Pakistan at this juncture, this fact is often overlooked. The latter theme has been called by one Indian columnist, “a dilemma of Hamletian proportions.”

This brings us to a very complex, more general issue that has not generated much attention in Washington: It is natural for trips by the world’s most important political leader to be extremely sensitive. Visiting one country while omitting another in the region or opting for the easy compromise of visiting both can dilute — if not altogether destroy — the whole exercise. In this particular case, attention is shifting from a substantive agenda to a stopover in Lahore, Pakistan, and to discreet negotiations about its duration.

Some time ago, there was a somewhat similar case when Clinton bypassed Japan during his visit to China, only at the last moment arranging for Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to visit Japan a few days later. However, a policy of equidistance should apply only to preparatory trips by lower officials. When the U.S. president undertakes such visits, it would be wise to schedule separate trips to individual countries, and to make sure that all countries involved are aware of such a policy.

In particular, in cases where no mediation is planned, there is nothing wrong with planning two independent trips, giving each destination due respect, time and attention, even if the duration of such visits is not always equal. Such visits are not and cannot be made into combined “tourist” trips for the sake of the president’s schedule, which is by definition always extremely heavy.

At the end of the day — and this applies not only to Clinton but to all other high dignitaries visiting Asia — it should be crystal clear that protocol, the level of visits, their timing, duration, frequency, the inclusion or exclusion of neighboring entities, the caliber of national diplomatic representatives — all apparently innocuous details — mean a lot and should be given due attention. Omissions or adjustments in this area, normally and lamentably treated as secondary, can determine the success or a failure of the main political undertaking.

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