Packing for India by David Mulford, Potomac Books: Dulles, Virginia, 2014, ISBN 978-I-61234-715-8, 338 pp., $29.95 (Hardcover), $21.08 (Kindle).
I wanted to read and review this book because Ambassador Mulford and I served together in India. David Mulford was Ambassador from 2004-2009. I headed the internal politics unit in the political section from 2003-2007. I was also intrigued by the title Packing for India, and the cover photograph, which featured Mulford and his wife Jeannie in front of the Taj Mahal. This gave me the impression the book would focus on his tenure as Ambassador. It turns out I was wrong. The work is actually an autobiography, covering Ambassador Mulford’s entire life.
This is one of several serious caveats I would present to those thinking of reading this book. Be aware that of the book’s 11 chapters, only two concern India. The rest of the book covers Mulford’s early life in the Midwestern United States, his education concluding with the earning of a Ph.D. from Oxford University, and his career as an investment banker and senior official in the Department of the Treasury prior to being named Ambassador.
Ambassador Mulford makes it clear from the onset that he belongs to a group of highly influential conservative Republicans often grouped together as the “establishment Republicans,” or “country club Republicans.” As such, the autobiography follows predictable lines and mirrors other such works by members of this group. These individuals share many personality and cultural traits, and an intense devotion to a political and economic ideology. If the reader has this in mind when reading the book, he will know in advance what to expect.
There are thousands of books written about the wide ideological divides separating Americans. This divide is not the principal subject of this book, but permeates the presentation. For example, like other such works, this book makes no mention of the cultural upheaval of the 1960’s. Mulford breezes through this era with no Woodstock, hippies, the Beatles, the civil rights movement, or any other event, idea, or personality even vaguely associated with the counterculture or social turmoil.
The principal focus is on the establishment, how to get into it, and how to rise to its commanding heights. The book is about achievement in traditional realms. There is no room for criticism of the establishment, questioning of tradition or intellectual soul searching. Do not expect any mention of music, philosophy, or literature. It is about nuts and bolts practical living and the search for success in conventional terms, wealth, fame, and power.
Ambassador Mulford credits much of his success to his humble upbringing in the American Midwest and the strong values he imbibed from this experience. His father died while he was still young, and his mother raised him alone from the age of nine. Mulford is extremely discrete and does not go into much detail, merely stating that he learned how to cope with great loss and carry on.
Mulford does not belong to the “old money” crowd. He was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He worked hard to achieve his success. He was born and raised in an era when ordinary Americans did not travel very much and did not expect to live and work abroad. Despite this, he ventured far away from his Midwest roots, completing a doctorate at Oxford, living and working in Africa, and building a career in international finance.
Mulford is not clear as to what inspired such a radical break. Persons who achieve such levels of success are deeply driven. Something convinces them to make the supreme effort to compete and win. Mulford was a highly competitive athlete, who played four sports and held down a job while in high school. Already destined for great things, he turned down slots at prestigious universities to attend his father’s alma mater, Lawrence College, in Wisconsin. This turns out to be a wise choice, for Lawrence nurtured Mulford. He received an excellent liberal arts education, which opened doors for him the rest of his life. From Lawrence, Mulford made the leap to Oxford. Although coming from a provincial area of the United States without much exposure to the outside world, he proved adept at living and working in highly varied international settings.
After flirting with academia and a career focused on Africa, Mulford realized it was not for him. He determined that much of what happens in the international realm revolves around money and that he wanted a career in international finance. He competed and won one of the very first White House fellowships. Asked where in the government he would like to work, he made the then unusual choice of the Department of the Treasury. He took maximum advantage of the fellowship to network, and cultivate high-level contacts and break into international finance. Mulford discovered his true calling and performed beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.
Discussions of the mechanics of investment banking take up around two thirds of this book. I have never had any interest in investment banking and he provided me with far more information about it than I really wanted. Investment banking lies at the heart of America’s deep political divide and played a key role in the 2012 presidential election. GOP candidate Mitt Romney was an investment banker. Those on the left viewed this as an essential negative, while establishment Republicans depict investment banking as a positive force for good.
This is an extremely complex subject that has been hashed and rehashed in countless books. Mulford hews to a strict conservative Republican line on the issue. He, like Romney, is extremely proud of his banking career. Mulford assumes the reader shares his political and economic point of view and does not entertain criticism of standard GOP ideology. If you do not share this point of view, you will likely reject many of his statements. Mulford repeats standard conservative nostrums regarding what is best for the economy, the country and the world and expects the reader to accept the entire package. His book is an autobiography not a polemic. If you are not an establishment Republican, you should view it as a learning experience that provides insight into a different world.
As a South Asia specialist who worked with the Ambassador during his Delhi tenure, I was principally focused on his two chapters dealing with India policy. David Mulford arrived in India following the disastrous tenure of his predecessor Robert Blackwill (2001-2003). In his typical restrained fashion, Mulford only mildly criticizes Blackwill, although he left a traumatized Embassy that was barely functioning. Political Ambassadors can have disastrous tenures. Afterwards, the State Department sends in extremely talented Deputy Chiefs of Mission (DCM’s) to clean up the mess and get the traumatized missions back on their feet. This is what happened in New Delhi. Robert Blake arrived as DCM and began to rebuild and prepare the way for David Mulford. He did a great job and Blake and Mulford made a wonderful team.
Mulford’s description of the difference in management styles between him and Blackwill was right on the mark. I remember with great fondness Ambassador Mulford’s efforts to rebuild shattered morale. It is apparent that during his long tenure in the UK Mulford absorbed many of the habits and mannerisms of the British upper classes. I was struck from the moment that I met him by his courtly manners, restrained speech, and gentlemanly demeanor. In that regard, Mulford was the quintessential Ambassador.
Unlike Blackwill, Mulford expressed enormous respect for those of us at the Embassy and for our dedicated service to our country. His sincerity and warmth was highly appreciated. Under Blackwill, the Ambassador’s residence was off limits and he and his wife made no effort to reach out to Embassy families. Mulford opened the doors of the residence. My wife and I spent many happy hours there at numerous events both formal and informal. When the Ambassador learned that my wife was originally from India and could sing, he had her open every Independence Day reception by singing the Indian national anthem (in Hindi) and the American national anthem. The highest levels of Indian society attended these receptions and were delighted to hear an American citizen sing their national anthem.
While in India, I was responsible for “Muslim outreach,” and religious affairs. Ambassador Mulford graciously stated that he had almost no background in these areas and deferred to my judgment. When Christian missionaries got into trouble after breaking Indian law, they came to the Ambassador expecting him to intervene on their behalf. I provided Ambassador Mulford with a complete briefing on the issue. Despite the GOP’s ties to the Christian right, Mulford was objective, telling the missionaries their conduct was insulting to the Hindu population and illegal. Much of Mulford’s account of the attitudes of Indian Muslims and Indian reaction to the American invasion of Iraq was straight from my reporting. I was in charge of President Bush’s religious event that Mulford recounts in great detail in the book and was delighted to hear of its positive impact on both the Ambassador and the President.
Much of Mulford’s account regarding Bush Administration policy in India could have been lifted straight from a briefing book. It paints the policy in the best possible light, while sweeping negative factors under the rug. This is understandable. Those who served in the Bush Administration repeatedly point to India as a significant foreign policy success.
Much of this narrative is centered on what we in the Embassy called “the nuclear deal,” and Mulford recounts the entire saga in exhausting detail, pointing to it as a major foreign policy achievement. I am afraid history will not be so kind. Mulford points out that the deal’s progress was tortuously slow, taking four years to negotiate and finalize. Despite all the effort, most objective observers have concluded that the deal’s impact is likely to be minimal.
I could write an entire book about what is wrong with “the deal”, but will select only a few points. Mulford fails to mention that the BJP government made the disastrous decision to detonate a nuclear device in May 1998. The BJP detonated knowing full well it would result in American sanctions. Mulford then claims the left parties opposed the nuclear deal because they feared the U.S. would use it to move against the Indian nuclear weapons program. In actuality, the left parties were the only Indian parties with the courage to stand up against the Indian nuclear weapons program. They decried BJP jingoism, contending that India should never have detonated. Their fear was that the Bush Administration would use the nuclear deal to cement India into a military alliance aimed at containing China. Instead, they wanted India to focus on poverty alleviation and not spend billions of dollars on sophisticated arms. Finally, on February 2, the Washington Post pointed out that nuclear energy is not the answer to India’s energy problems. Renewable energy is coming down so rapidly in price that nuclear power plants will be obsolete and not economically viable by the time they are built.1
Finally, Mulford repeats the standard GOP admiration for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP, stating “I have no doubt that Mr. Modi’s commitment to restoring growth and advancing reform will be realized in the next few years.” 2 Modi, a lifelong member of the right wing extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has an agenda that goes far beyond “economic reform.” His administration, not even one year old, is already bogged down, as it pursues the same policies of religious intolerance and human rights abuse that he pursued in Gujarat. Mulford describes Modi’s tenure as Chief Minister in Gujarat as “hugely successful.” More objective observers say the state’s economic performance does not measure up to all the hype, while its social indicators are pretty dismal.
1. Vivek Wadhwa, “Why Obama Should Stop Pushing Nuclear Energy on India,” The Washington Post, February 2, 2015