The Desi Factor in U.S.-India Relations

According to a new Gallup survey, more than two-thirds of the U.S. public has a positive impression of India, a score that even edges out Israel’s traditionally-high favorability rating.  This is the latest indicator of how decisively American perceptions about the country have changed.  Not too long ago, India was regarded as the very epitome of what the term “Third World” meant – decrepit, destitute and pitiable.  Yet in a relatively short period of time, the popular view of India has changed in critical ways.

For many decades most Americans were inclined to the views of President Harry S. Truman, who dismissed India at its birth as an independent state as “pretty jammed with poor people and cows wandering around streets, witch doctors and people sitting on hot coals and bathing in the Ganges.”  His Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, had an even more incisive perspective: “by and large [Indians] and their country give me the creeps.”  When Daniel Patrick Moynihan was U.S. ambassador to India from 1973-75, he regularly lamented that Washington was utterly indifferent to the country’s fate; writing in his diary, he confided that it “is American practice to pay but little attention to India.”  In a cable to the State Department, he complained of dismissive attitudes, “a kind of John Birch Society contempt for the views of raggedly ass people in pajamas on the other side of the world.”

Public opinion kept close track with official attitudes in Washington.  Harold Issacs’s classic 1958 survey of U.S. elite opinion, Scratches on Our Minds, revealed that influential Americans held very negative perceptions of the country, associating it with “filth, dirt and disease,” along with debased religious beliefs.  A State Department analysis prepared in the early 1970s found that U.S. public opinion identified India more than any other nation with such attributes as disease, death and illiteracy, and school textbooks throughout this period regularly portrayed it in a most negative light.  This view was again underscored in a 1983 opinion poll, in which Americans ranked India at the bottom of a list of 22 countries on the basis of perceived importance to U.S. vital interests.

So, what accounts for the significant shift in perceptions? Continue reading

Problems with the Asia Pivot

Washington has a credibility problem in the region

Tom Donilon, the U.S. national security advisor, was at the Asia Society in New York last week to talk (transcript here; video here) about the Obama administration’s effort to shift Washington’s strategic focus away from the military quagmires of the Greater Middle East to the dynamism of Asia – a region where, as the president puts it, “the action’s going to be.”  Unveiled to much fanfare (here and here) in late 2011, this signature initiative – variously known as the “pivot” or the strategic “rebalance” – is all about shoring up the U.S. presence in a vital region that is increasingly under the sway of an ascendant China.  Mr. Obama’s trip to Southeast Asia last November, for example, featured two countries – Myanmar and Cambodia – that no president had visited before, and was designed as one commentator put it to reverse “China’s drive to tighten its grip” on the region.

The administration has devoted high-profile resources to the pivot, as demonstrated by the president’s commitment to participate in the East Asia Summit’s annual meetings – a serious expenditure of time given the travel distance.  And Donilon’s appearance at the Asia Society is the second time he had given a major address on the region in the past few months (first time here). Yet despite these efforts, many in Asia still question America’s staying power and the administration’s determination to see through its two key regional efforts – the buildup of military forces that is plainly directed against China, and the ambitious set of trade and investment negotiations known as the “Trans-Pacific Partnership” (TPP) that would contest Beijing’s economic hegemony in East Asia. Continue reading

Obama’s Afghan Dysfunctions

Earlier posts have commented on the Obama administration’s defective foreign policy apparatus as well as its highly dysfunctional management of the war in Afghanistan (here and here).  Both problems are conjoined, a point that is amply underscored in Vali Nasr’s forthcoming book, The Dispensable Nation.  Nasr served as a key adviser to the embattled Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s special envoy on AfPak matters whom the White House appointed at Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s insistence but then proceeded to cut him off at the knees.  Although the book won’t be published until next month, its scathing critique of administration policy-making is already causing a stir (here and here) in Washington circles.

Nasr confesses that his “time in the Obama administration turned out to be a deeply disillusioning experience,” and judging from the book’s excerpts in the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine he engages in a good deal of bureaucratic score-settling and is filled with ire at the White House staffers who detested Holbrooke.  Even so, the points he raises are consonant with the devastating accounts recently offered by other administration insiders – such as Rosa Brooks (here and here) who served in the Pentagon’s policy planning shop – as well as respected journalists like Ahmed Rashid, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, James Mann and Thomas E. Ricks.   Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor in their new book, End Game, similarly provide an unflattering portrait of the administration’s handling of the Iraq war. Continue reading