Every now and then a columnist ought to shock and dismay his most faithful readers. So here goes: Barack Obama gave a terrific speech yesterday to India's parliament, perhaps the best one of his presidency and potentially a true compass for the rest of it….
The president gave a terrific speech. Not that it was particularly eloquent. But for all my cavilling, he stood up for free trade, free markets and free societies. He also finally beat an honorable and unequivocal retreat from his July 2011 withdrawal deadline from Afghanistan. Here's a sampler from the speech, since the best of it seems to have escaped notice in most press accounts:
• Afghanistan: "While I have made it clear that American forces will begin the transition to Afghan responsibility next summer, I have also made it clear that America's commitment to the Afghan people will endure. The United States will not abandon the people of Afghanistan—or the region—to the violent extremists who threaten us all." (My emphasis.)
• Pakistan: "We will continue to insist to Pakistan's leaders that terrorist safe havens within their border are unacceptable, and that the terrorists behind the Mumbai attacks be brought to justice. We must also recognize that all of us have an interest in both an Afghanistan and a Pakistan that is stable, prosperous and democratic—and none more so than India."
• Free trade: "Together we can resist the protectionism that stifles growth and innovation. The United States remains—and will continue to remain—one of the most open economies in the world. By opening markets and reducing barriers to foreign investment, India can realize its full economic potential as well."
The second one, from Rich Lowry, writing in today's New York Post:
After spending the early part of his administration kowtowing to China and neglecting India (the two weren't unrelated), Obama delivered on the first leg of his Asia trip. He forged closer ties to the robustly democratic nation of 1 billion people, partly as a hedge against the rise of a China resistant to his blandishments.
Obama's speech to India's Parliament was a long mash note. He called India and America "indispensable partners." He said that "the United States not only welcomes India as a rising global power, we fervently support it." He hailed its contributions to civilization, including the invention of the number zero. (How else could we denote our national debt?)
All of this was the logical follow-on to the civil nuclear accord forged between the US and India during President George W. Bush's second term. That agreement signaled a new turn after decades of tensions when India headed the "nonaligned movement" during the Cold War and when the US imposed sanctions after India's 1998 nuclear-weapons tests. The embrace of India was one of Bush's most important moves on the geo-political chessboard.
Although Obama hosted Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at his first state dinner, the administration seemed to consider Bush's India play as too provocative to Beijing. In Tokyo last November, Obama gave a speech about Asia that didn't mention India. On the same Asia jaunt, he signed a communiqué in Beijing that suggested a Chinese role in South Asia. All of this belittled the Indians without easing Chinese belligerence.
Obama's latest trip reflects a less naive approach. He lifted restrictions on US technology transfers to India, opening up potentially lucrative sales of sophisticated US weaponry. He endorsed India as a permanent member of a reformed UN Security Council, leaving only China openly opposed among permanent members. And he was as critical of India's adversary Pakistan as he possibly could be while on Indian soil.