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Our US problem -by Babar Sattar


Last week our leader of the opposition felt obliged to address a press conference to reiterate his undivided allegiance to Pakistan after Wikileaks revealed that his children are US citizens. How did we get to this pass where a rational conversation about our love-hate relationship with America is no longer possible? Why is it that in their private lives our elites and ordinary people alike yearn for the educational and professional opportunities offered by the US and the West or the option to reside there, but publicly question and judge the loyalty of those who avail them? When did we grow numb to such hypocrisy?

When did hatred for the other – be it the US (in recent times) or India (our evergreen enemy) – become our measure of patriotism? Is it in Pakistan’s interest to emulate North Korean or Iranian behaviour as a nation-state and emerge as an international pariah? Must of our leaders and intellectuals stroke the anger and paranoia of a frenzied citizenry blaming ‘outsiders’ for all our ills?

During my Oxford days every time there would be an impassioned discussion about the morality or of US foreign policy or lack thereof a close American friend would get riled up and mockingly question why ‘my people’ hankered after American universities, Hollywood, Elvis, McDonalds or Tom and Jerry and Mickey Mouse if the US was so abominable. In a state of heightened emotion it was hard to explain to him that all these attributes of America that he identified were endearing, but US foreign policy was not. That there was no logical inconsistency between wishing to be educated in the US or even working and living there, and at the same time holding the view that the US foreign policy is unjust and bereft of ethics.

That US foreign interactions are not founded on the principle that all human beings are equal and have a right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness as they deem fit: values that the US Constitution holds dear for its own citizens, which have made America a great country.

It is even harder to make the same argument in Pakistan. A distinction needs to be drawn between America, the country, which remains a land of opportunity for hundreds and thousands of Pakistanis despite 9/11, and the US foreign policy and the Obama administration’s approach to ‘Af-Pak’ that prejudices Pakistan’s interests.

Disengagement with the US – the still remaining superpower, despite predictions of imminent downfall due to unjust wars and imprudent fiscal management – or frothing at the mouths and chanting ‘death to America’ will do little to secure Pakistan’s interest. Within a world order inspired by Machiavelli’s ideas, brazen pursuit of national interest by nation states is the expected norm even if unjustifiable. But why is it no longer politically viable for civilian or military leaders to state publicly what they concede privately: cultivating hostility with the US will not serve Pakistan well?

Lack of democracy and its continuity afforded non-representative powerbrokers a big say in how Pakistan is run. Dictators needed international acceptance and the US willingly obliged so long as its interests were secured. Overtime the US established itself as a power-wielder in domestic politics and those seeking power, including elected leaders, were eager to play ball. Effective US wheeling-dealing in domestic politics cultivated a firm belief within the minds of our power elites that people of Pakistan might be the source of legitimacy, but the flow of power can be facilitated or disrupted by the US at will.

The conundrum for our civilian power elites is obvious: if the stated interests of Pakistan are in conflict with the stated interests of the US, defending the interests of Pakistan can attract US ire and undermine an incumbent’s prime interest of remaining in power. The resulting alliance between the personal interests of our decision-makers and US diktat explains American capture of our power elites.

Such warped relationship between Pakistan’s power elites and the reigning US administration creates a disincentive to invest in and build a relationship between the two countries based on shared interests, reciprocity and candour. The nature of this relationship creates a twin-dilemma for our power elites. One, there are impossible US demands that cannot be acceded to, such as initiating military action against the Afghan Taliban within Pakistan at a time when the US war effort in Afghanistan is failing and it is out of ideas to devise an honourable exit.

And two, how do you disclose to Pakistani people embarrassing details of US involvement in Pakistan’s internal matters (now documented by Wikileaks)? How do you explain the US role in brokering the NRO-deal between General Musharaf and Benazir Bhutto that produced the PPP-led regime now in power? How do you justify General Musharaf’s handing over of airbases to the US or grant of permission to carryout drone attacks in Pakistan? Why should the US be lobbying for an extension of our army chief’s tenure?

Our power elite’s approach to dealing with unpalatable US demands or unwitting disclosure of indefensible US involvement in Pakistan’s internal affairs is consistent: complete reliance on hypocrisy and denial. Such duplicity causes irreparable damage not only to our international credibility but also our national psyche. One, it nurtures a sense of disempowerment within Pakistanis. The alliance between selfish interests of power-wielders in Pakistan and the US administrations is logically understandable. But the picture painted by our power elites that the US can bulldoze its way through against their will and seamlessly control everything that goes on in Pakistan cultivates the myth of American omnipotence and an appetite for conspiracies.

The prophecy becomes self-fulfilling, perceptions become reality and the US ends up becoming the invisible hand that it is made out to be.

Two, it breeds anti-Americanism within Pakistan and leaves no public space for a rational dialogue about the desirable contours of Pakistan’s relationship with the US. The khakis are most adept at lashing up public sentiment to play hardball with the US. During the Kerry-Lugar-Brennan law debate in Pakistan, they successfully outraged public sentiment against the US to drive home the point that the army will continue to have a veto in all negotiations with the US.

The Raymond Davis fiasco saw a repeat performance, except that this time the khakis got egg on their face. As they had to deliver Davis at the cost of their credibility amidst public anger after they had struck a deal with the US administration. Pakistan’s foremost problem is the practice of its power elites to sleep with the US for personal gains and simultaneously demonise it in public to shirk accountability for the unpopular decisions willingly taken on US behest.

As we approach the final phase of the US war effort in Afghanistan, the tension between the US and Pakistani interests linked to the future of Afghanistan will escalate. The US strategy of bleeding the Taliban as part of a plan to draw them to the negotiation table is failing. Everyone other than the US can see it. The Obama administration will need a fall guy to hang the blame for its inability to ‘fix’ Afghanistan and Pakistan will fit the bill. But our national interest is not just linked to the future of Afghanistan but also our need for an amiable relationship with the US.

The test for Pakistan is to strike the right balance between these seemingly competing interests, and that cannot be left to the generals alone. As we enter this turbulent phase, we need a candid public debate and clear articulation of Pakistan’s legitimate interests linked to Afghanistan and the US to develop a genuine consensus around our national security policy. The onus of initiating such rational debate is on our elected political leaders.

Babar Sattar … The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.

Email: sattar@post.harvard.edu

Source: The News

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