(op-ed, with Thomas F. McLarty), Forbes.com. June 1, 2009
Ending weeks of speculation, the White House has announced President Obama’s pick for U.S. Ambassador to India: former Congressman Timothy Roemer. Roemer will bring a fresh approach to the U.S.-India relationship, a global view steeped in national security matters at just the time when our two countries must enhance our security cooperation. He will have a direct line to the White House and to important legislators and policymakers in Washington, the most important element for any envoy’s success.
But above all, he and his family will represent the best of American “Midwestern” values, bringing an earnestness of purpose and an open, inquisitive mind to all he pursues. He’ll ask a lot of questions, listen hard to the answers, and in the process advance what the United States and India can do together.
Pundits are already noting the substantial national security background Roemer will bring to Roosevelt House–the U.S. ambassador’s residence in New Delhi. Currently the president of the Center for National Policy, he served on the 9/11 Commission, and sponsored the legislation that created it in the last of his six terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. As a scholar, he has published on the threat radicalization (particularly radical Islam) poses to our world, and criticized the mismatch of our bureaucracies to meet this challenge.
Last fall, in his role as a member of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Roemer nearly boarded a flight to Islamabad where he was to head for the Marriott–but was stopped in his tracks by the suicide attack that killed 54 and wounded 266.
In short: He has legislated, studied and published on the terrorism threat, and he has narrowly missed being in the line of fire. He will bring enormous empathy to the concerns India has long voiced, and lead the way toward a deeper cooperation countering terror.
Of course, the most important requirement for an envoy’s success is having the president’s ear, and he’s got it. He was an early supporter of then-candidate Obama, and campaigned hard for him in his home state of Indiana. (Indiana was a tough and late-voting battleground during last year’s interminable primary). But he’s also got the ear of Vice President Biden, a big supporter of the 9/11 commission’s recommendations. He was a strong supporter of President Clinton and knows Secretary of State Clinton very well. Hometown ties to fellow Indianans Sen. Richard Lugar, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Lee Hamilton, now director of the Wilson Center and a powerful éminence grise on foreign policy after decades in the House, ensure that he can convey his views directly and effectively.
Roemer knows how America’s complicated foreign policy process works, especially the role Capitol Hill plays, and he will be able to translate this sometimes-opaque setup to colleagues and friends in India.
But we would be remiss not to comment on the personal qualities that will make Roemer an outstanding ambassador. One of us has known him personally for nearly two decades, and can say without hesitation that he embodies the best of American decency: humble, diligent, conscientious. He is a centrist Democrat in the Sam Nunn mold, with a record of bipartisanship that underscores his thoughtful manner and ability to find common ground amidst differences.
He has a scholar’s mind for questions–he earned a Ph.D. from Notre Dame–and seeks out different points of view so he can learn. India can expect an American with a fresh point of view, and most importantly, someone ready to understand the country and the aspirations of its citizens as it is today. At this hopeful and indeed pivotal time for U.S.-India relations, these qualities will make him extremely effective.
Thomas F. “Mack” McLarty is chairman of McLarty Associates and served as chief of staff and special envoy for the Americas in the Clinton administration. Alyssa Ayres is director for India and South Asia at McLarty Associates, and directed the Asia Society task force, which recently released “Delivering On The Promise: Advancing US Relations With India.”