In India, the president defended free markets, free trade and free societies.
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.
No, I don’t mean the president’s feckless lament about trade and currency imbalances. I don’t mean his equally feckless defense of the Fed’s latest liquidity injection, which is the currency manipulation that dare not speak its name.
I don’t mean his support—justified but meaningless—of India’s bid to gain a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. (Who would want it, anyway?) I don’t mean his bizarre plea for a nuclear-free world, “a vision,” he says, “that Indian leaders have espoused since independence.” If that’s so, why did those same Indian leaders acquire a nuclear arsenal in the first place?
Above all, I don’t mean Mr. Obama’s reverential bows to the memory of Mahatma Gandhi, whose “message of love and peace,” as the president put it, is just a little marred by the details of his biography. Among them, his support for the caste system; his refusal to allow his wife to get a penicillin shot that might have saved her life; the “Dear Friend” letter he addressed to Adolf Hitler, whom he also described as “not a bad man”; and his belief that the British—and the Czechs, and the Jews—should have offered no more than nonviolent resistance to the Nazis.
So where was I?
Right: 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 sources of India’s success: “Instead of resisting the global economy, you became one of its engines—reforming the licensing raj and unleashing an economic marvel.” The “licensing raj” refers to the regulatory state that used to dictate all “private” economic decision-making in the country and still dominates the country’s educational establishment.
• Terrorist attacks on India: “Here in this Parliament, which was itself targeted because of the democracy it represents, we honor the memory of all those who have been taken from us.” Mr. Obama is referring to the December 2001 terrorist attack on India’s parliament, in which six policemen and one civilian were murdered. But he is also taking aim at the idea, common among his progressive friends, that terrorists object to what free societies do—whether in Gaza, Iraq or Kashmir—rather than to what they are. To take the opposite view, as Mr. Obama now seems to have done, is to recognize that terrorists can never be mollified by political concessions, and that democracies live under a common threat. If that’s true of the U.S. and India, why not of the U.S. and Israel as well?
That’s something to ponder. Also worth pondering is how a president who used to routinely inveigh against Bangalore for stealing jobs from Buffalo, who defended the “buy American” clause in the stimulus bill, and whose health-care legislation comes with its own de facto licensing raj, can suddenly talk so much sense. Maybe it’s pure double-speak, or maybe the president has emerged from his midterm shellacking with a new religion. India tends to have that effect on strangers: The sensible among them have been known to lose their minds, but the senseless often find their grip.
Mr. Obama, plainly, is a leader who needs to find his grip. In describing the domestic achievements of India, he has at last alighted on a formula that can work for the U.S. while saving his presidency in the bargain. A man who has so often promised to listen to the world rather than preach to it might do well, this time, to listen to himself.
Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal