In an intensely awkward congressional hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday, freshman Rep. Curt Clawson misidentified two senior U.S. government officials as representatives of the Indian government. The two officials, Nisha Biswal and Arun Kumar, are Americans who hold senior positions at the State Department and Commerce Department, respectively. Although both Biswal and Kumar were introduced as U.S. officials by the chairman of the Asia and Pacific subcommittee, Clawson repeatedly asked them questions about "your country" and "your government," in reference to the state of India.
Earlier this month, in a clumsy moment, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) lambasted U.S. customs official Thomas Winkowski. But there was a problem: McCain meant to shout at R. Gil Kerlikowske, a different U.S. customs official with a name that was kinda sorta similar.
It was an embarrassing exchage, but on the cringe-worthy spectrum, McCain's confusion was nothing compared to this story, reported yesterday by John Hudson.
The video is hard to watch, but it's also hard to look away.
Clawson, who won a special election this year to replace Trey Radel, kept talking to the U.S. State Department officials as if they weren't U.S. officials. "I'm familiar with your country; I love your country," the Republican lawmaker said, apparently unaware of the fact that they're from the same country. "Anything I can do to make the relationship with India better, I'm willing and enthusiastic about doing so."
The Foreign Policy report added, "Apparently confused by their Indian surnames and skin color, Clawson also asked if 'their' government could loosen restrictions on U.S. capital investments in India."
Clawson added, "Just as your capital is welcome here to produce good-paying jobs in the U.S., I'd like our capital to be welcome there. I ask cooperation and commitment and priority from your government in so doing. Can I have that?"
After an uncomfortable pause and befuddled looks, Biswal, the American official from the U.S. State Department, told the Florida congressman, "I think your question is to the Indian government."
Kudos to Biswal for showing great restraint. If I were in her shoes, a variety of other responses might have come to mind.
But here's the kicker: Clawson didn't apologize. He apparently didn't even realize that he'd made a mistake. After Biswall gently tried to set him straight, the GOP lawmaker simply said, "OK, let's see some progress."
Yes, some progress would be helpful, wouldn't it?
Look, the idea that foreign officials would give sworn testimony before a congressional committee is itself a true rarity, but Clawson's new so perhaps he doesn't realize that. But to watch the congressman assume that two senior U.S. officials in the Obama administration are foreigners was extraordinary -- and not in a good way.