Biden Admin International Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence: Breaking Bread with Authoritarians

In his way, India’s prime minister is as bad as some of the old Latin American dictators who got plenty of American support but never an evening meal — and certainly no cardamon-flavored strawberry shortcake for dessert.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi with U.S. President Joe Biden at the G20 in November 2022 in Bali. (White House/Adam Schultz)

By Patrick Lawrence / Consortium News

“For the first time in recent history, the White House is hosting a state dinner that’s entirely plant-based: no meat, no dairy and no eggs,” the reliably supercilious NPR reported as it curtain-raised the Biden White House’s state dinner for Narendra Modi last Thursday. 

The Indian prime minister, our corporate-sponsored national radio broadcaster explained, is a strict vegetarian. The headline on this shattering piece of reportage was, “For Modi’s state dinner, the White House is elevating the mushroom.”

This is big, to state the obvious.

“While there are no specifically Indian dishes on the menu, many Indian spices and flavors are incorporated into the courses,” NPR’s Deepa Shivaram wasted our time informing us. “The first course includes a salad made with marinated millet, grilled corn, and compressed watermelon with an avocado sauce. The main course is a stuffed portobello mushroom with a creamy saffron-infused risotto.”

A vegetarian menu at the White House for a brown-skinned man who favors long kurta shirts, white churidaar trousers, and sleeveless Nehru jackets: Is this the ultimate in liberal inclusivity or what?

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The New York TimesThe Washington Post, the television networks: They were all told to run similarly frivolous stories celebrating this summit of “the world’s two largest democracies,” as the tiresomely empty cliché has it, and run them more or less identically they did. 

You can always count on corporate media correspondents to lose themselves in the tinny glitter of these sorts of occasions. It makes them feel passingly part of the ruling elite, different from you and me.

As it happens, inclusivity is precisely the problem — and it is indeed big — with Modi’s four-day visit to Washington. In my estimation Modi is the worst prime minister in independent India’s 76–year history — vicious against his political opponents and the press, a man dedicated to a radical Hindu-chauvinist ideology inspired by Mussolini’s Black Shirts, a man who tacitly licensed the murderers of at least 800 Muslims in a three-day spree of communal violence when he was chief minister of Gujarat 21 years ago.

In his way Modi is as bad as some of the old Latin American dictators, who got plenty of American support but never an evening meal—and certainly no cardamon-flavored strawberry shortcake for dessert. What in hell was this man doing in the White House last week? What was he doing on American soil, indeed, given he was barred from entry for years after the Gujarat riots?

We should spend a little time considering these questions. They are important if we are to understand the hypocrisy and stupidity — separate but related attributes — of those who conduct American foreign policy in this, our late-imperial phase.

‘Diversity, Equity & Inclusion’

Antony Blinken was extremely stupid to elevate diversity, equity, and inclusion, DEI as we’re saying now, to a principle of American diplomacy when he was named the Biden regime’s secretary of state. 

All kinds of problems have resulted, all of them to do with the resentment prompted by the presumption to tell others how to run their countries and live their lives. Wilsonian universalism may change shape, but it will die, it seems, only when the imperium does.

DEI is but an adjunct of the Biden regime’s larger error. This is the president’s insistence that the world is divided between democrats and authoritarians and defending democracy is “the defining challenge of our time.” This is what you get from a provincial pol who spent his career rolling logs on Capitol Hill and selling snake oil out in the provinces and who should never have got within 100 miles of a position entailing executive responsibilities.

The democracy-vs.-authoritarianism binary had the neatness of the Cold War divide — its principal attraction — but was a bust from the first. Little to nothing fits into it: It does not work in the Middle East, it does not work in Latin America, and it certainly does not work in South Asia. 

Joe Biden just had one of the world’s nastiest authoritarians to dinner — and then had the nerve to serve the cardamon-infused strawberry shortcake, which is the part that truly, as it were, sticks in my throat.

Pretzel Logic

It has been wonderful to watch the regime and the press that serves it twist themselves into pretzels as they have sought to explain away this contradiction. Here is Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, writhing on the hook last week with a few reporters, one of whom was Peter Baker of The New York Times:

“From our perspective, it has never been as simple as drawing up jerseys. It has always been about seeing those long-term trends and trying to point those trends in the right direction and then being prepared to have a more sophisticated approach to how we build relationships with a range of different countries.”

I wish the French would make up a word just for this guy: Sullivan is a master bullshitier in our household. It has always been about issuing jerseys, hats and such like, always in black and white.

Pointing trends in the right direction? A more sophisticated approach to building relationships? Never heard of any of it before Biden and his people had to explain Modi’s presence in Washington last week. In an earlier version of Baker’s piece Sullivan spoke indelicately of “bending the arc” of Indian policy — a thought the Times stealth-edited out of versions available now, probably at the White House’s direction.

On the eve of Modi’s arrival, the White House press corps took daringly to predicting that Biden would avoid mention of the democrats-vs.-authoritarians theme while entertaining the besmirched Indian PM. How could he? 

What we witnessed last week was the implosion of the entire construct. I have a hard time imagining how Biden and his people can ever again bring it up, although they are full of surprises of the cheekiest kind.

There is no ambiguity as to Modi’s record. You cannot put his performance down to “backsliding on democracy,” as mainstream media put it.

The massacre of Muslims in Gujarat, and Modi’s role in condoning it, were excellently documented in a seven-part takeout published in Tehelka, a professionally distinguished weekly journal, five years after the events and after lengthy investigation. 

Since he was elected prime minister in 2014, he has simply gone national with his Islamophobia. To its credit, the Times ran a very fine opinion piece last week in which Maya Jasanoff, the Harvard historian, addressed Modi’s record and related questions.

I once had lunch in Bangalore with Ramachandra Guha, the distinguished historian. We were talking about India’s exceptional diversity, which I have long counted its single most admirable feature. Guha pulled out a 100–rupee note and told me to count the languages on it. There were 17. “We’re going to lose this,” he said ruefully.

This is what I find most unforgivable about Modi and his kind. They are erasing the best India has to give the world in the name of the ideology known as Hindutva, an abominable stew of xenophobic fanaticism born of an insecurity as to Hindu identity that has its roots among ideologues active in the 1920s.

These people — V.D. Savarkar and Dayananda Sarawati are prominent among the godfathers — argued that the Indian nation to come must be a Hindu nation, with Muslims erased from the story. 

The organization formed at the time, the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh, learned from the European Fascists how to get things done. The RSS is still active — was, indeed, a key element in the Gujarat killings. The Hindutva Savarkar and Sarawati theorized a century ago is the Hindutva to which Modi and his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, subscribe.

Please pass the DEI, Secretary Blinken. My cup is empty.

Cornering Themselves 

Biden and his people painted themselves into a corner with their carrying on about democracy and authoritarians and “values” altogether. You have to be pretty stupid to fashion a foreign policy this useless. From here on out we will watch them try to get out of it.

But there is another kind of stupid at work among the Biden folk. This is the stupid of not understanding Indian history and altogether what makes India India.

“We expect this will be a historic visit,” Jake Sullivan told Baker and the other reporters he met pre–Modi last week. Sullivan promised agreements in “significant number” covering arms sales, high technology, semiconductors and so on. “This, really, from my perspective, will be one of the defining partnerships of our age,” Sullivan told the assembled stenographers.

The core thought behind the Modi invitation was to nurse New Delhi into joining the West in condemning Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and to draw it into the U.S.–led effort to encircle China. In other words, to recruit India into Cold War II.

This, really, from my perspective, is foolishness of a kind one rarely comes across in the foreign policy scene. It is either ahistorical or Sullivan and his colleagues are simply indifferent to history’s realities.

Nonalignment in global affairs, from Nehru’s day to ours, is a semi-sacred principle without which India would simply not be India. It is intrinsic to the Indian consciousness. This is never going to change.

All that Sullivan named — chips, arms, whatever else — are as baubles New Delhi will be pleased to accept but which will not in the slightest alter India’s global posture. They will cancel out not one tech contract India has with China, not one arms agreement between New Delhi and Moscow.

During Cold War I Washington couldn’t abide Tito, Sukarno, or any of the other leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement for the simple reason Washington cannot abide the principle of nonalignment. 

American officials — Dean Acheson, John Foster Dulles and the others — broke their picks trying to turn these people. It is the same now with Modi, although I strongly dislike putting Narendra Modi in the same paragraph as the just-named giants of an earlier era.

Cardamon-infused strawberry shortcake? Flowers of green and saffron yellow —the colors of the Indian flag — at each table? Green and saffron drapes? Green and saffron in the Rose Garden? I have to be honest. This occasion was so vulgarly overdone, so o.t.t., that it seems to me a touch racist: Let’s snow this brown-skinned guy with a lot of showy nonsense, Biden’s protocol people seemed to conclude. It costs nothing and will make him feel important at the very heart of the imperium, and he will therefore be inclined to do as we say.

I’m not waiting for it. I’m not waiting for some kind of “defining partnership” or for much of anything else to come of the Modi visit to Washington.

We have a couple of insights into the futility and misdirection of Biden’s foreign policy, and this is better’n nothing. Chief among these is that the global principles Biden and his policy people espouse are all revealed as fraudulent now, and that these people simply cannot see the world as it is — one gets the impression because they would not know what to do if they did.

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Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a media critic, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon siteHis Twitter account, @thefloutist, has been permanently censored without explanation.

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