Shortly after presenting his credentials in Rashtrapati Bhavan several years ago, an American ambassador invited his fellow heads of diplomatic missions for breakfast at his residence in Chanakyapuri. He told his aides that he was too busy to follow convention and call on other ambassadors as his predecessors had done: he would only extend that courtesy to a few heads of missions who represented 'important' governments closely allied to Washington. The other ambassadors in New Delhi could come for his breakfast if they wanted to break the diplomatic ice with him.
The Russian ambassador to India at that time was not among those who had been chosen for a 'privileged' call by his new US counterpart. He decided on the eve of the breakfast that he would not demean himself or his country by going to Roosevelt House, the American ambassador's residence in the capital on this occasion. But he also took the unusual step of sending his political counsellor to take his place. Not his deputy chief of mission, not a diplomat equivalent in rank to a minister, but only a counsellor. The counsellor in question was known to the Indian government and to many diplomatic missions in New Delhi as a long-time KGB operative. He was also one of those who lived up to fictional images of boorish, pushy and matter-of-fact KGB men, whom no amount of cover could cover-up in sophisticated diplomatic circles.
When the counsellor was introduced to the host as the guests trooped in, the American envoy asked about the Russian ambassador, who had, after all, confirmed his attendance at the breakfast. The KGB man loudly told the host, stunning the other guests and American diplomats, 'My ambassador is busy. He has other things to do.'
The diplomatic storm in New Delhi, set off by the controversial interview of the US ambassador, David Mulford, linking the Indo-US nuclear deal to India's vote on Iran's nuclear programme at the International Atomic Energy Agency brought back memories of that breakfast ' an occasion when the Russian ambassador stood up and resisted efforts by the representative of the world's only remaining superpower to deal with others from a high horse.
Every central Asian ambassador in New Delhi attended that breakfast at Roosevelt House. For many east European ambassadors, who are holdovers from Soviet times, the end of the Cold War means doing America's bidding instead of their previous habit of taking orders from Moscow. All but one of the east European envoys attended that breakfast.
That is what American ambassadors are used to. In many capitals across continents, host governments and a large number of fellow ambassadors fawn over them. The Indian government has been a notable exception to this largely global rule, but about a decade ago, there was an attempt to change this. When a new American ambassador arrived in New Delhi, before he had presented his credentials to the president, the then foreign secretary invited him to dinner at his residence on Chanakyapuri's Circular Road. This departure from protocol, which became widely known, caused so much resentment that it has not been attempted again in New Delhi.
American ambassadors in many parts of the world ' more so in countries which are vulnerable to US pressure or are dependent on American handouts ' behave the way Mulford did last week. Even in a country as non-controversial as New Zealand, the US ambassador got into controversy some years back, trying to insert himself into a domestic debate on the sensitive issue of buying F-16 planes for New Zealand's air force. Not long ago, in nearby Australia, leaders of the Labour Party had to twice chastize the last US ambassador, John Thomas Schieffer, for interfering in Australia's domestic politics.
In recent weeks, US ambassadors in Lebanon, Canada and Britain ' to mention a few ' have all been in the spotlight for some gaffe or for having exceeded their brief. While Mulford's remarks to PTI last week are inexcusable and they do a disservice to Indo-US relations, another side of the story is that his is not an easy job in New Delhi.
America is unique in that most of its ambassadors are political appointees, many of them contributors to the president's election. In this privileged club of American ambassadors, a hub of patronage, favours and influence-peddling, Mulford has to compete with the likes of Schieffer, the former envoy to Australia, who was reassigned to Japan last year at the start of George W. Bush's second presidential term. A look at Schieffer's past tells the story. He was an investor in the business partnership led by Bush that bought the Texas Rangers Baseball Club in 1989. When Bush was elected governor of Texas in 1994, Schieffer assumed Bush's duties as general partner of the club and The Ballpark in Arlington, Texas, which was part of Bush's business.
Mulford's task is also made difficult by the Bush administration's self-righteous attitudes, and because no other US administration in decades has set so much in store by loyalty. As Indians know from their political experience, there is only a thin line between loyalty and sychophancy. Like Mulford, the need to live up to the expectations of Washington's political leadership recently got Bush's envoy to Britain, Robert Holmes Tuttle, own- er of one of the largest automobile dealer organizations in the US, into deep trouble.
Appearing on a programme on BBC Radio 4, Tuttle flatly denied that the Bush administration was handing over terrorist suspects to Syria to be tortured under a controversial practice known as 'extraordinary rendition'. The ambassador was either not reading his cables or he was being more loyal than he needed to be. The following day, a spokeswoman from his own embassy had to contact the BBC to contradict Tuttle and set the record straight.
Unfortunately for this ambassador, it was the second such gaffe in quick succession. A few weeks before his brush with BBC Radio 4, Tuttle had angrily reacted to British media reports that US forces had used white phosphorus, generally considered to be a chemical weapon, against Iraqi insurgents. A day after the ambassador's denial appeared in the British press, the Pentagon spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Barry, Venable, admitted to using white phosphorus as 'an incendiary weapon' to dislodge Iraqi fighters from entrenched positions in Fallujah.
Mulford has an additional difficulty in New Delhi that one can relate to. Unlike his predecessor, Robert Blackwill, Mulford does not have the kind of contacts among Indians, which enable him to gauge the mood in India. Nor does he have Blackwill's single window access for answers either in South Block or in North Block: if he had such access, he could have avoided a summons to the external affairs ministry on a day when most ambassadors are rubbing shoulders with some of the most powerful men in New Delhi, either on the lawns of Rashtrapati Bhavan during the president's customary 'at home' or along Rajpath during the Republic Day parade.
To add to it all, in the National Democratic Alliance government, it was possible for a resourceful envoy to go to the national security adviser, Brajesh Mishra, and get ready answers to most questions on foreign policy. Manmohan Singh's prime minister's office is structured differently and his government has no external affairs minister ' all of which, no doubt, contribute to problems thrown up by Mulford's interview.