Ambassador Blues

Maneuvers surrounding the appointment of a new U.S. ambassador in New Delhi cast light on Washington’s outlook on India.

There are two ways to look at the quixotic, widely derided campaign by Brad Sherman, a Democratic member of the U.S. Congress from the Los Angeles area, to have Cruz Bustamante, a former lieutenant governor of California, appointed the next U.S. ambassador in New Delhi. Both approaches capture a slice of reality and yet are mutually contradictory. Taken together, however, they form a good picture of Washington’s current outlook on India.

The up-side approach is to see Bustamante’s bid as reflecting India’s rising influence in world affairs and its growing esteem in U.S. public opinion. It wasn’t so long ago when New Delhi was looked upon as a hardship post in a country that accounted for little on the global stage. President Harry S. Truman, for instance, was “appalled” when Chester Bowles accepted the envoy’s assignment over other available posts. “Well,” the president said, “I thought India was pretty jammed with poor people and cows wandering around streets, witch doctors and people sitting on hot coals and bathing in the Ganges, and so on, but I did not realize that anyone thought it was important.”

Washington’s attitude had scarcely changed a quarter of a century later when Daniel Patrick Moynihan was ambassador. President Richard Nixon held India in extremely low regard, and a Pentagon official in the early 1970s publicly declared that South Asia was a theater of minor concern. The diary Moynihan kept during his time in New Delhi is filled with frustration about America’s utter indifference and the difficulty in convincing any U.S. government official, let alone a business leader, to visit the country. As he was wrapping up his service, he confided that it “is the American practice to pay but little attention to India.”

Washington’s appreciation improved in the subsequent 20 years but not so much as to keep the George H.W. Bush administration from treating Roosevelt House, the official residence of the U.S. ambassador, as a sort of bureaucratic exile. Secretary of State James Baker reportedly dispatched Thomas Pickering to India because he felt Pickering, who earned glowing reviews at the United Nations during the Persian Gulf conflict, was overshadowing him. New Delhi, it would appear, was deemed far enough away from the limelight.

As it turned out, Pickering would spend only six months in New Delhi before the incoming Clinton administration decided his considerable talents were better employed in Moscow. Roosevelt House subsequently sat vacant for the next 15 months until Frank Wisner took up residence in mid-1994.

The United States has been blessed by a long line of distinguished diplomats eager to serve in New Delhi. But what is striking these days is how a posting there is perceived in non-diplomatic circles as a highly desirable assignment. Rod Blagojevich, the disgraced former governor of Illinois, certainly thought so. According to intercepted phone conversations entered into evidence in his federal trial on corruption charges, he seriously considered trading his choice to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat for a White House appointment as ambassador to India. His highly opinionated wife counseled that New Delhi was “the best choice” since it would put him “in a major powerhouse in the world.”

So it should come as no surprise that Mr. Bustamante, despite no discernible connections to or acquaintance with the country, would want to take up in residence in New Delhi. Nor is Sherman’s sponsorship the only time Bustamante has expressed this desire. According to media reports, he first put his name forward during the early days of the Obama administration.

More surprising, however, is why the ambassador’s post is even considered vacant.  Some three months after Timothy Roemer’s departure – rumored to have been hastened by New Delhi’s rejection of the U.S. bids for the Indian air force’s lucrative fighter contract – the Obama administration has yet to nominate a successor.  True, Peter Burleigh, an extremely able South Asianist, was brought back to serve as charge d’affaires, reportedly until he could be confirmed by the Senate as the full-fledged ambassador. But the White House has so far failed to submit his formal nomination, which is being interpreted in New Delhi as yet another sign of the growing level of frustration in Washington with India’s leadership. Indeed, it is telling that less than a year after President Obama declared India to be an “indispensable partner in meeting the challenges of our time,” a debate has broken out in Washington about whether New Delhi should even be considered an ally.

(Another indicator may lie in the White House’s inability to arrange Mr. Obama’s schedule so he can meet with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of this week’s United Nations General Assembly session in New York.)

The dichotomy between Cruz Bustamante’s interest and Peter Burleigh’s limbo is an apt metaphor for the current bilateral relationship. New Delhi is increasingly seen as the place to be, even if there are rising doubts about India’s reliability as a strategic partner.

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