Singhing for Bush

George W. Bush and Manmohan Singh — nuclear soulmates?

By Brahma Chellaney

A Reuters column January 20, 2009

They were certainly not made for each other. Yet the trigger-happy George W. Bush found a soulmate in diffident Manmohan Singh. When the Indian prime minister publicly told the little-loved Bush that the "people of India deeply love you," he was expressing his own deep-seated admiration of a U.S. president whose just-ended term in office constituted a nadir from which it will take America years to recoup its losses.

Singh’s fulsome praise for Bush stood out at that September 25, 2008 White House news conference. The Indian leader had actually timed that visit to Washington so that it coincided with the expected congressional ratification of the controversial U.S.-India nuclear deal. But the Senate clearance of the deal got delayed because of the new congressional and executive focus on a bailout package to rescue sinking U.S. financial institutions.

Almost every paragraph in the prepared statement Singh read out at that press conference ended with a sappy tribute to Bush:

•"And the last four-and-a-half years that I have been prime minister, I have been the recipient of your generosity, your affection, your friendship. It means a lot to me and to the people of India."

•"And Mr. President, you have played a most-important role in making all this happen."

•"And when history is written, I think it will be recorded that President George W. Bush made an historic goal in bringing our two democracies closer to each other."

•"And when this restrictive regime ends, I think a great deal of credit will go to President Bush. And for this I am very grateful to you, Mr. President.”

•“So, Mr. President, this may be my last visit to you during your presidency, and let me say, Thank you very much. The people of India deeply love you.”

Referring to Singh’s expression of love for the much-despised Bush, Anand Giridharadas wrote in the New York Times, “Laura Bush is not alone, after all.” Perhaps the only thing Singh didn’t do at that event was to hand Bush, with tear-welled eyes, a rose.

Bush’s otherwise negative legacy includes a foreign-policy triumph – the nuclear deal with India, consummated through his bonding with Singh.

These two dissimilar personalities displayed similar political traits at critical times. Their bond served as a reminder that, contrary to international-relations theory, history is shaped not just by cold calculations of national interest, but heavily by the role of personalities, including their personal attributes, idiosyncrasies and hobbyhorses.

Their personalities were apart, yet Bush and Singh showed they share a lot in common, including an emphasis on spinning reality to suit political ends. While Bush led the U.S. into Iraq through lies and deception, Singh’s Iraq was the nuclear deal, into which he led India blindly. And just as Bush claimed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Singh asserted fanciful benefits in the nuclear deal.

While Bush was a catalyst in America’s declining global influence, Singh has served as a catalyst in undermining India’s inner strength to the extent that New Delhi today pursues a policy of propitiation toward China and a policy of empty rhetoric against Pakistan-fomented terrorism even as its internal security has come under siege.

Under their leadership, America and India became internally weaker.

Bush and Singh, although one was strident and the other soft-spoken, displayed the same fondness for generalities and the same knack of handling crises in ways that make them exponentially worse.

Yet neither wavered from his chosen path even when the democratic majority was against that course.

When Bush could not have his way, he resorted to bullying and intimidation. Singh does it differently — he goes into a sulk, threatening to resign, as he did last summer until the Congress Party gave in to his wishes on the nuclear deal.

Singh’s obsessive fixation on that deal was matched by Bush’s destructive mania on Iraq, where his swan song involved ducking shoes.

While Bush will be remembered for horrors like Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo and blunders like Iraq and Afghanistan, Singh will be remembered for the “cash-for-votes” scandal that marred his July 22, 2008 win in a Parliament confidence vote and his memorable credulity in setting up a joint anti-terror mechanism with terror-exporting Pakistan.

Indeed, Singh’s first diplomatic response to the Mumbai attacks was to invite the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief to India. But for second thoughts in Islamabad, the head of that rogue Pakistani agency would have landed up in India, as per the invitation, “to assist in the investigations” — analogous to a mafia leader assisting police.

Handing Islamabad a dossier of evidence the same day Singh said “some official agencies in Pakistan must have supported” the attacks symbolized unremitting naïveté. If state agencies were involved, how could New Delhi expect the Pakistani state to act against them?

While Bush allowed his national-security agenda to be hijacked by neocons, the onetime-socialist Singh emerged as India’s chief neocon.

His two votes against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board, for example, cost India hundreds of millions of dollars as Tehran, in reprisal, reneged on the terms of a liquefied natural gas (LNG) contract, forcing New Delhi to buy LNG from other suppliers at a much higher price.

Bush was always protective of Singh. The Bush administration’s unclassified answers to 45 congressional questions on the nuclear deal were kept secret for nine months not only because the replies belied Singh’s assurances to Parliament, but also as their disclosure “could have toppled the government” in New Delhi, according to Glenn Kessler in the Washington Post. The answers became public only after the danger to Singh’s political survival had passed.

Singh, for his part, shielded even a Bush political appointee. “To err is human,” Singh famously said when Ambassador David Mulford triggered a furore in early 2006 with undiplomatic remarks.

Now, on two consecutive days this month, Mulford ticked off Singh himself for linking Pakistani “official agencies” to the Mumbai attacks.

On one occasion, Mulford said: “I think one needs to be very, very careful about making those kinds of allegations unless you have very concrete evidence to that degree of specificity.” On another occasion, he declared: “I don’t think we want to take the view that we make accusations against certain parties without the usual evidences and proofs.”

How did New Delhi respond to that scolding? It made not even a peek.

Both Bush and Singh squandered taxpayer money. While the economic costs of the Bush-initiated wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have already totalled a staggering $1.6 trillion, with the Bush administration having awarded billions of dollars in no-bid reconstruction contracts to favoured companies that did little on the ground, Singh, as a “thank-you” to Bush for the nuclear deal, unveiled yet another purchase of obsolescent arms — eight Boeing P-8I long-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft, in a $2.1 billion deal.

Another “thank-you” — a nuclear-accident liability coverage bill, currently in circulation within the government — could be pushed in the brief Parliament session in February in the same manner eight bills were rammed through in 17 minutes on December 23, 2008 in the midst of continuous uproar in the Lok Sabha, the ruling lower House.

Bush famously said about Russian leader Vladimir Putin: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward… I was able to get a sense of his soul.” That prompted Senator John McCain to claim he also looked into Putin’s eyes, only to see three letters: K-G-B.

But if there is anyone who says he got a sense of Bush’s soul it is Singh. He looked into Bush’s eyes and read three words: love for India. While the U.S.-India relationship began to blossom under Bush, the wreckage he has left — extending from Pakistan-Afghanistan to Wall Street — will cost India dear.

(Brahma Chellaney is Professor of Strategic Studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi)

(Brahma Chellaney is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own.)

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