Chennai, India—It’s been a fascinating six days on the ground in India. Everything everyone has told me about the country—its beauty, the friendly people, its dynamism, the great food—is true. Of course, I am no India expert, so my impressions are superficial, at best. I’ll be in India another twelve days. From Chennai (aka Madras until the 1990s), I will travel to Mumbai, from there to Pune, and then my final stop in Hyderabad. I’ve spent the better part of the last week in New Delhi and Lucknow, the capital of the northern state, Uttar Pradesh.
I am here at the invitation of the US Embassy in New Delhi to give talks about the United States and the Middle East. The tour I am on is run out of the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP), which sounds far more Orwellian than it is. With the help of IIP, the embassy and its consulates around the country provide a forum for non-official interaction between the world’s oldest democracy and its largest. The program exposes people like myself—not an expert on India—to Indian intellectuals, government officials, students, and the media for an exchange of views. The great public affairs and cultural affairs officers serving here have helped me get from place to place, attend the meetings, introduce me to interesting people, and make restaurant recommendations but they never, ever tell me what to say. Those familiar with this blog or those who know me personally can count on the fact that I’ve said more than a few things in the last six days that have made the Embassy staff squirm a bit.
Now onto India. As my hosts—both Americans and Indians—have declared any number of times in the last week, I am here at a great time. Indians are quite concerned about what is happening in Syria, Washington’s posture toward the Middle East generally—where India gets 63 percent of its oil—the turmoil in Egypt, the threat of extremism, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. For all the talk of the new relationship between Washington and New Delhi, however, there seems to be considerable mistrust of the United States reflected in polls showing that only 41 percent of the people have a favorable view of America.
Take, for example, the curious debate here about Syria. With the exception of a terrific roundtable with Indian diplomats, at virtually every stop along the way, I have been taken to task for the American intervention in Syria. Yep, that’s right: The intervention that United States has decided (at least, for now) not to undertake. A fair number of my Indian interlocutors have held up Russian President Vladimir Putin as a paragon of international law. A few folks do not believe that the Assad regime used chemical weapons. In each case, I have had to remind the Indians across the conference table or lecture hall that Washington has not intervened in Syria and is not likely to undertake military operations against the Assad regime now that there seems to be a deal over Damascus’ vast stockpiles of chemical weapons. I must admit that I take a certain amount of pleasure in reminding my new friends that in contrast to Washington, Moscow has directly intervened in the Syrian conflict, supplying Bashar al Assad’s forces with much of the equipment required to kill more than 100,000 and displace two million. In enabling the humanitarian disaster that is Syria, I am conscientious about reminding folks here that the Russians are partners with the Iranians and Hizballah. Memories are short, of course, so I also throw in the fact that Moscow killed tens of thousands—if not more—during two recent wars in Chechnya.
It’s all polite and very friendly, if a little surprising at first to the uninitiated like me. It strikes me that there are two reasons why some Indians would view Washington with so much distrust. There is an enduring legacy of India’s leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement, which was made up developing countries of the south that sought to resist signing up for one team or the other in the global struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. I cannot think of a non-aligned country that was truly non-aligned and in India’s case, New Delhi’s rhetorical commitment to the principled idea did little to mask its close ties with Moscow. In the context of Indian politics, this made sense to the extent that the Soviet Union often aligned itself with alleged national liberation movements that sought to throw off the legacies of colonialism and build new societies. Given that India is the paradigmatic case of a post-colonial state, it seems that close Moscow-New Delhi ties were inevitable.
That was a long time ago, but at least from what I have perceived so far, the people who tend to frame the terms of the debate in this country are older than 60 or 65. As a result, the decades between the 1960s and 1980s were a formative period of intellectual development for India’s strategic thinkers, professors, and major journalists. The good news is that beyond the deference to which younger Indians pay to this older generation, they seem to approach issues like the Syrian conflict and the potential American intervention (and Washington’s role in the Middle East writ large) in a far more critical and engaged way. That does not mean that younger Indians support an American intervention in Syria, but they seem far more willing to see the issue in terms of the horrors that Damascus has perpetrated upon its own people rather than American military adventurism.
Speaking of which, the conduct of the United States in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and the prosecution of the war is also a source of Indian mistrust and deservedly so. Syria is not Iraq, but some Indians (and a fair number of Americans) see echoes of the Bush administration in the Obama administration’s case for military intervention in Syria. That is not accurate, but the perception clearly exists. Likely because the Indian press is so inward looking, my interlocutors only have a vague idea of the rather vigorous and sophisticated debate in the United States about the wisdom of military operations in Syria. Needless to say, I was happy to fill them in. Still, Indians’ wariness of the exercise of American power—even in the service of humanitarian goals—is another example of the strategic blunders of the early 2000s. India has great moral authority in the developing world and at the United Nations, which could be an asset to Washington but for the credibility it squandered a decade ago.
Stay tuned for more updates from South Asia….