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


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 that 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

Kargil Disclosures and the Nuclear Proliferation Debate

My last post focused on the domestic implications in Pakistan of the latest revelations about the 1999 Kargil mini-war.  Since the crisis is a key point of contention – a sort of Rorschach test, really – in the debate over whether the proliferation of nuclear weapons in South Asia has stabilized or aggravated the India-Pakistan rivalry, it’s also worth taking another look at two important points regarding Kargil’s nuclear dimensions:

  • Did Pakistan’s nuclear tests in May 1998 embolden the Kargil planners, especially Pervez Musharraf, the newly-appointed chief of army staff, to undertaken the ill-advised operation just a few months later?
  • Did the perceived success of Pakistan’s small nuclear arsenal in deterring fulsome Indian retaliation during the crisis give Musharraf the security confidence to embark upon an intensive back-channel peace process in 2004-07 that reportedly was on the verge of defusing the perennially-inflamed dispute over Kashmir? Continue reading