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President Bush in India

October 31, 2009

When I first heard that President George W. Bush was one of the speakers at this year’s Hindustan Times  Leadership Summit, I was rather surprised and just a bit excited. He is slated to give his speech at the Hindustan Times Summit later today and the whose who of the Indian political, economic and social elite along with some foreign dignitaries will grace the occasion. I mean during his presidency although one of the cornerstones of the Bush doctrine was a paradigm shift in the way the US looked at Asia and the world and India was at the center of this major diplomatic initiative, yet, Bush came to India for just a day, gave a speech in Delhi and that was it. It amazes me as to why and how dignitaries find little time for issues they believe in when in office and once they are out of position have all the time and the will to go back to what they had advocated in the first place.

President George W. Bush is a sought after speaker now. I have always believed that the man was badly judged both by the American people and the world. I do not for a moment condone the Iraq invasion. But then did not Bill Clinton bomb Baghdad and President George Bush Sr. impose debilitating economic embargo on Iraq. George W. Bush only took forward what was the consistent American policy for more than a decade before he came to power. I also believe that many of these decisions are made regardless of who is the president. There are forces that are strong enough to ensure that the American policy veers one way or the other. I am in no way trying to exonerate President Bush but am only trying to understand how things work and why he did what he did. He did castigate Americans for their ‘addiction to oil’!! His ‘axis of evil’ remark was also very apt and the world is trying to find answers to both Iran and North Korea. Iran is getting more and more difficult. It will take some doing to get them around. My hunch is that Iran will go the Iraq way. I am not too sure Obama has the will to take punitive actions against a rogue regime. It is very easy for Obama administration to say that the focus is now on Afghanistan. I agree that Iraq is by and large peaceful now, but I will be surprised if the Americans are able to stick to their 2012 withdrawal timetable. Obama said that he will spend more resources in Afghanistan. Now when it is crunch time, he is not sure whether he could possibly send more troops to Afghanistan even though his top army commander there Gen. Stanley McChrystal has asked for ‘more boots on the ground’.

President George W. Bush was thought of as a dimwitted bumbling president. Nothing was farther from the truth. Those who know him say that he is a voracious reader. The man has a disarming sense of humor. He cannot help but chuckle at himself.  He quipped  that ‘he was writing a book even though the people back home think I can’t read’!!! Anywhere in the western world the audience may have given a standing ovation for the sense of humor of the man, here in India all this elicited was a polite grin all around. I guess that was good enough for President Bush. The top brass of Indian establishment was there in full force at the Prime Minister’s luncheon and that included Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Rahul Gandhi, Home Minister P. Chidambram, Shiv Shankar Menon and so many others. It was India’s way of saying thank you to a man that we Indians are absolutely fond of. There is a reason why President Bush is seen so favorably by us Indians. We see Bush as a visionary. He made a departure from the regular American policy and realized that USA and India are natural allies. He could not see why two of the world’s most prominent democracies with so much potential for mutual cooperation were so wide apart. I concede that this was an idea whose time had come but even then, it needed courage to make that break. And this paradigm shift was not just an increase in bilateral cooperation in various fields but catapulting India as a de facto sixth player on the world stage after the P5. That took a lot of courage and doing and only someone who was absolutely convinced about this could have gone ahead the way President Bush did. Indians could not help but thank the president for his extraordinary vision and for the nuclear deal. The man, true to his style quipped ‘we had to break a bit of China to make that happen’!!! You can fault the man for anything, but one thing most observers will concede, President Bush had a lot of courage.  Even when his approval ratings were plummeting at around 30 percent in America, more than 65% Indians believed that President Bush was doing a good job and saw him as a friend.

The Obama administration, when they took over had a bit of a scorn for the previous regime. Nine months down the line and they realize that not all that the Bush administration was doing was a no-no. I am sure this administration has more respect for the man and what he stood for. America has now started missing Bush, at least some Americans do. The one big Obama push has been the health care bill. I accept that Bush would have never brought such a ‘socialistic’ bill and there I give credit to Obama for his conviction. But on many other fronts I guess Bush was going by the book and the need of the hour, looking firmly to the interests of the US and the world. Guantanamo may be a black mark, but at that time I guess it was a necessity. At the fag-end of his presidency Bush declared that Guantanamo would be closed, but he had too little a time to make that happen. The sheer logistics of the exercise and the judicial expediency involved required has surprised the Obama administration. For Obama to point a finger at the previous regime when in a fix is trying to test the common sense of the people.

As the Obama administration matures, I am sure it will find its way and do a commendable job. But it is clear that the new administration has mellowed down a bit now and has more respect for the previous regime. I guess America has more respect for President Bush now than when he was in office. I know his bloopers were famous, but that was not the whole of Bush. Posterity will judge him more kindly. As for his visit to India, we wish he had found time to come to India for a longer stint when he was in office. But it is a pleasure to have him here amongst his Indian friends any way. I understand Prime Minister Singh was at his chirpy best when he was hosting President Bush for lunch. For Singh to be chirpy takes a lot. Bush is one of the few who gets the best out of Manmohan Singh. The other times when the Prime Minister is at his jovial best, I am told, is when he is with his family.

Addendum: I had a chance to watch the highlights of President Bush’s speech at the HT Summit on the TV. I was floored by his charm and grace. He was applauded more than once by the gathering there and at the end, there was a long applause that spontaneously turned to a standing ovation. I shall not dwell on what all he said. Suffice to say that he was not only hitting the right notes but was an excellent ambassador for his country. I have this feeling that the world over we have a tendency of running down our leaders. Is this out of spite or just lack of respect for our own selves, I do not know. It is when they are gone that we begin to take stock of the loss that we have incurred. President Bush was another such leader who was lampooned and ran down by his own countrymen. Brits are doing the same to Tony Blair (they call him Teflon Tony) and we were equally bad with Indira Gandhi when she was alive and to those who came after her. Bush was not a failure and he would have gone about things differently had he been given some more room to maneuver. We must learn to respect our leaders and have some faith in them. There was this musical legend who literally killed himself. People threw him aside and ridiculed the man. Today thousands line up and dance to his music wearing masks. the man’s name is Michael Jackson. You see, when we run down our leaders such, we are in effect running down our country and by default our own selves. The world begins to take us less seriously. I am not saying that there should not be any checks and balances. All I am saying is that we should refrain from stooping down beyond a point. India and Indians wish President Bush all the best. He was much better than what the world gave him credit for.

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