Trump's namaste magic in India eludes American media

Trump's namaste magic in India eludes American media
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A potentially brilliant foreign policy strategy unfolded last week during President TrumpDonald John TrumpIllinois governor says state has gotten 10 percent of medical equipments it's requested Biden leads Trump by 6 points in national poll Tesla offers ventilators free of cost to hospitals, Musk says MORE’s trip to India. Hardly anyone in America knows that, or has been talking about it, because it’s hard to find a journalist who filed an interesting or insightful story from New Delhi. 

Trump’s visit to India reflected a complex approach for strengthening America’s hand in South Asia and triangulating Russia, China and India in Central Asia. But, rather than assessing what was happening on this trip from a geopolitical perspective, most journalists subjected Americans to a predictable Trump-diminishing snarkfest. A central storyline was that Trump flew halfway around the world to get the adulation of 100,000 Indians in a cricket stadium, broadcasted back to the U.S. at 3 a.m. Eastern time. Pseudo-psychologist commentators branded the trip an effort to “seek adulation” and “a sightseeing tour.”

But, as they like to say, here is the breaking news: Any day of any week, Trump could fill stadiums from Cleveland to Dallas with 100,000 cheering Americans who actually could vote for him, rather than flying a grueling 20 hours to India for affirmation. Actually, global power politics took place under the noses of an evidently clueless press corps and major agreements were discussed that could change the balance of power in Asia.

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Perhaps these media members might have considered context. Just before Trump left for India, the U.S. reached agreement on a ceasefire and potential peace framework with the Taliban in Afghanistan, hopefully bringing to a close the longest military conflict in American history. As anyone knows who has followed the war post-9/11, the ants at the picnic for any lasting deal with the Taliban are the Pakistanis and their Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. These are the folks who harbored Osama bin Laden, have provided cover and aid for the Taliban, and deceived President Obama’s military and diplomatic leaders while gulling them for billions of dollars in aid.  

Having concluded an initial deal with the Taliban, Trump likely wanted to send a message to the Pakistanis that America is creating deals with their rival India, and that bond will only strengthen if the ISI disrupts progress toward peace. 

The Indian intelligence service, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), is also active in Afghanistan and has leverage that might be used to support peace in the region. Certainly the Taliban came up during the president’s conversations — but the stories filed by the U.S. press demonstrated no curiosity about this at all. 

RAW is especially active in Balochistan, a region where Russia has always sought influence in its quest for warm water ports. We know Russia came up in the context of arms sales. Over the past 15 years, the U.S. has allowed Russia to expand influence in the region as a principal arms supplier to India. The Obama administration's efforts to court Pakistan, and Obama’s aggressive campaign to curry favor across the Muslim world, handicapped any real opportunity to challenge Russian influence. But Trump’s new arms deal with India may be a useful step toward establishing real American influence in this critically strategic part of the world. All extremely important, but instead we got press coverage of monkeys at the Taj Mahal.

China also was likely a central area of discussion. Trump has concluded some successful deals with China, but it remains a serious economic and military rival. Similarly, India and China are rivals for influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean, a major strategic theater for Indian and Chinese trade and defense. China traditionally has been a military ally of Pakistan. Without question, a triangulation strategy for dealing with China’s ascendance in South Asia and the Indian Ocean would have been on the table. Yet some in the media made Bollywood jokes.

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Trump, in his trademark fashion, talked about “beautiful” India trade deals, which were important efforts to open up a huge alternative market to China. But, as typically happens, there was vastly more going on behind the scenes. When Trump flew halfway around the world to “play golf” with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Japan, and then flew back one week later to put pressure on China over trade and North Korea — with Abe’s support — the press whiffed the story, focusing mostly on Abe’s love of golf. When Trump “insulted our NATO allies,” only to get increased European contributions to their own defense and to welcome an eager European Union trade delegation a week later to negotiate a new trade deal, many in the media focused instead on the “destruction of our alliances.”

The takeaway from the president’s India trip is the same as these other examples: The quality of much of American journalism has been hollowed out by “journalists” who rely on cheap shots and snarky comments about Trump, rather than getting real, insightful stories. 

In India, Trump received namaste — he deserved it. Many clueless American members of the press will never understand why.

Grady Means is a writer (GradyMeans.com) and former corporate strategy consultant. He served in the White House as a policy assistant to Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. Follow him on Twitter @gradymeans1.