[Ed. note: My mistake below — President Obama’s state dinner for India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was scheduled not for Wednesday, but for Tuesday. Apologies for the mix-up, and now you know, I’m not on this year’s White House A-list).
Wednesday, on the eve of Thanksgiving, President Obama will host his first state dinner, and — throng of Hollywood glitterati notwithstanding — there will be at least one voice of sanity on the premises: the guest of honor, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Singh is already making the rounds in Washington, where he spoke Monday at the Council on Foreign Relations. I dropped by, and found myself part of an overflow crowd. Singh is a big enough draw so that the later arrivals had to be funneled to a side room to watch the doings on big flat screen monitors. No matter. The messages came through — and rather than preening and obfuscating as official Washington is prone to do these days, the 77-year-old Singh greeted the crowd with humility and thanks for coming to hear him. He then spoke with refreshing clarity.
Singh did not talk about “violent extremists.” He calls them “terrorists,” as in his statement that “Terrorism poses an existential threat to the civilized world, and it must be defeated.”
Defeated where? On this, too, Singh was clear: “We should not harbor any illusions that a selective approach to terrorism, tackling it in one place while ignoring it in others, will work.”
Nor did he dither when asked how would he describe the consequences if the Taliban prevail in Afghanistan. “Catastrophic,” was his answer — catastrophic for Afghanistan, Pakistan and all South Asia.
On Iran? He didn’t call Tehran’s fling with fissile materials merely a “nuclear” program. He spelled out: “We don’t support the nuclear weapons ambitions of Iran.”
Asked to compare China’s economic growth with India’s, he pointed out that India’s democracy, with its respect for human rights, may ultimately prove the more stable achiever of the two.
On climate matters, it’s hard to tell what Singh really makes of the politicized “science” with which the United Nations is trying to herd the economies of the developed world over a cliff — but his comments suggest he’s no fool. He’s unwilling to sacrifice India’s development to the climate change crowd, though if wealthier nations want to serve up financial aid and technology to India, he’ll take it.
Not to make too much of this. India has plenty of problems — not least, as Singh noted, its creaking infrastructure. Nor is Singh the Ronald Reagan of Delhi. But I remember interviewing him 17 years ago in New Delhi, where he was then the finance minister, embarked on efforts to unshackle India’s bureaucratically choked command-and control economy — efforts which have since paid off with real rising wealth and progress.
So, what does this veteran Indian politician really make of the U.S. president’s push for command-and-control policies at home, combined with apologies for America and dithering over “overseas contingency operations” conducted against “violent extremists” involved in “man-caused disasters”…? Singh in his remarks Tuesday was impeccably polite toward Obama. But I’m not sure we should confuse diplomatic good manners with respect. I came away from Singh’s appearance at the Council with the odd sense that the White House needs someone like that, and not just as a one-night dinner guest.