February Issue 2008

By | Editorial | Opinion | Published 16 years ago

Some eight years ago, when Republican presidential hopeful George W. Bush was asked to name the military officer behind Pakistan’s recent coup d’etat, he racked his insubstantial brain and came up with a category rather than a name: “General…” Admittedly, Pakistan at the time did not exactly attract the sort of significance it has acquired in the interim, even though the subcontinent had been identified by analysts as the likeliest site of a nuclear conflagration, particularly in the light of the Kargil confrontation, which the Clinton administration had hosed down by leaning heavily on Nawaz Sharif’s government. The coup was widely perceived as, in part, retribution for Sharif acquiescing to American pressure by pulling the plug on that misadventure.

Bush has, in the interim, become considerably better acquainted with Pervez Musharraf, and has even mastered the art of pronouncing the latter’s name reasonably well, by his standards. In fact, the two of them have learned to depend on each other to an extraordinary extent: Musharraf because he feels he has little choice, Bush on account of a myopia based on ignorance and ideologically inspired malfeasance. But now Bush’s days, at long last, are numbered: 11 months from now, he will be obliged to hand over power to his successor.

It won’t be known until November who that successor is going to be, and by the time you read this the field may have narrowed down considerably. Unfortunately, however, there may not be a huge difference between Bush and the next president in the context of Pakistan’s plight.

Despite the Bush administration’s abysmal record internationally as well as in the domestic arena, there is no guarantee that he will be succeeded by a Democrat. But although the Republican field — wide open at the time of writing — inevitably offers greater cause for concern, the leading Democrats can hardly be construed as guarantors of a less destructive US foreign policy.

International affairs generally don’t feature as a primary concern in US presidential contests, but the events of recent years have made a difference. Iraq, for instance, was prominently on the agenda when the Republican majority in both houses of Congress was overturned at the 2006 congressional elections. A similar phenomenon ought to have been in play during Bush’s bid for re-election in 2004, a year-and-a-half after the gratuitous invasion of Iraq, but the extent of the disaster was still being disguised by a substantial proportion of the mainstream media. Besides, John Kerry, the Democratic candidate, despite his status as a veteran of the Vietnam War, as well as the domestic movement against that outrageous instance of American aggression, was more keen to depict himself as a war veteran rather than as a veteran of anti-war activism.

In the present context, the leading Democratic hopefuls have broadly been inclined towards a progressive (albeit less than complete) pullout from Iraq, whereas their Republican counterparts have generally held out the prospect of continued occupation, with John McCain taking credit for last year’s “surge” on account of having advocated a larger troop presence all along.

The only exception is Ron Paul, a traditional Republican isolationist, who would withdraw US troops not only from Iraq and Afghanistan, but also from NATO and all United Nations operations. In his opinion, the 9/11 attacks were, effectively, blowback: “They attack us because we’ve been over there. We’ve been bombing Iraq for 10 years. I’m suggesting that we listen to the people who attacked us and the reason they did it.” In many respects his worldview would undoubtedly be an improvement on the status quo, but the US cutting itself off from the rest of the world is hardly a realistic prospect, and Paul failed to make a mark in the early caucuses and primaries.

Pakistan planted itself on the agenda in the wake of the traumatic events of December 27 — exactly 28 years, coincidentally, after the Soviet military intervention allowed the US to become less secretive about its efforts to nurture and equip the forces that eventually yielded the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

US-hillary-clinton-feb2008Presidential candidates tend to rely on opinion polls and focus groups before formulating expressible opinions, but in the case of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, there was little time for such niceties. That may explain why Hillary Clinton expressed herself in generalities before latching on to the context of empathy as a mother and a female politician. “I have known Benazir Bhutto for more than 12 years, she’s someone whom I was honoured to visit as first lady when she was prime minister,” she eventually noted. “Certainly on a personal level, for those of us who knew her, who were impressed by her commitment, her dedication, her willingness to pick up the mantle of her father, who was also assassinated, it is a terrible, terrible tragedy.”

She also cited “the failure of the Musharraf regime either to deal with terrorism or to build democracy,” adding that “it’s time that the United States sided with civil society in Pakistan.” There’s more than a sliver of truth in that opinion, but her chief rival, Barack Obama, wasn’t exactly being facetious when he pointed out that Hillary’s role in authorising the attack on Iraq played a crucial role in swinging American attention away from the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, implying that Pakistan’s fate was a consequence of the military debacle set in motion by the decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

The Washington Post slapped down Obama for capitalising on the tragedy, although the point he and his aides made wasn’t really out of context. It did, however, tend to reinforce a couple of fallacies. For instance, the widespread notion that the US would have been better off concentrating on Afghanistan than venturing into Iraq is defensible at one level, but on the other hand the idea that greater military strength would somehow have resolved the Afghan troubles is a dangerous illusion.

Obama also noted that Americans “stand with [Pakistanis] in their quest for democracy and against the terrorists who threaten the common security of the world.” He spoke to the US ambassador in Pakistan, as well as Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington, but it was his rival John Edwards who managed to get through to Musharraf, reminding him of the need to establish democracy, as well as allow an international investigation into Benazir’s assassination.

Going by the early episodes in the nomination process, however, Edwards — who also comes across as more progressive on most domestic issues than Clinton and Obama — could, at best, aspire to a vice-presidential slot on the ticket, and that too only if the latter succeeds in stalling the formidable Clinton machine.

Yet, however wanting one might find the contenders on the side of the Democrats, their Republican counterparts provide considerably greater cause for concern. Mike Huckabee, for instance, reacted to Benazir’s murder by saying the American response should include “very clear monitoring of our borders … to make sure if there’s any unusual activity of Pakistanis coming into our country.” That non-sequitur points to the kind of philistinism that Bush brought to the White House. But Huckabee — who was running out of funds at the time of writing, and therefore was considered unlikely to be a serious contender despite the attention he has attracted in recent months — was by no means the most reprehensible of the lot.

US-mccain-guliani-feb08Arguably the leading contender for that category is former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose reaction to the Bhutto catastrophe was predictably anodyne, but who has consistently railed against “the bloodlust of Islamic terrorists.” According to Democratic senator Joseph Biden, every sentence Giuliani has uttered during the campaign consists of “a noun, a verb and 9/11.” He was mayor when the September 11 atrocities occurred, and his leadership was much lauded at the time (in contrast with that of Bush), but subsequently his opponents have found several gaping holes in it.

His advisers include some of the direst neoconservatives — including Norman Podhoretz and Michael Rubin — and it was Giuliani who effectively prodded fellow Republican Mitt Romney into making a television ad in which he announced: “It is this century’s nightmare — jihadism. Violent, radical Islamic fundamentalism. Their goal is to unite the world under a single jihadist caliphate. To do that, they must collapse freedom-loving nations like us.” Romney’s response was triggered by being taken to task for suggesting that an American assault on Iran would require legal justification and a congressional imprimatur.

He and Giuliani also have no problems with the torture by organs of the US government that has become routine in the so-called war on terror. John McCain, to his credit, opposes such interrogation techniques, not least because he claims to have been subjected to them himself during his stint as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. He is also far more reluctant than any of his Republican colleagues to dump on the illegal immigrants the US attracts from Mexico and elsewhere in Central America. But the continued occupation of Iraq remains on his agenda — he has gone as far as to allege that the US is winning the war in the wake of the surge he had long recommended — as does a possible attack against Iran.

Following Benazir’s assassination, he pointed out that, unlike any of his rivals, he had actually visited Waziristan and therefore had a better idea of the conditions in that part of Pakistan. It’s safe to presume he is not troubled by Obama’s suggestion that the US should, on the basis of “actionable intelligence”, be willing to raid Pakistan’s northern territories to track down terrorists, particularly Al-Qaeda stalwarts such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri.

McCain, who was flattened by the Bush machine in an earlier bid for the White House, is the likeliest contender among the Republicans, and his reputation as a pragmatist may well afford him an advantage in a one-on-one contest against Hillary Clinton. Obama, on the other hand, evidently exercises bipartisan appeal that would boost his standing in November, were he to be picked as the Democratic candidate. His relative youth is probably an advantage against McCain’s seniority, although some voters construe it as inexperience.

The problem with Clinton is that, among other things, she would probably feel obliged to be excessively gung-ho in order to prove that a female commander-in-chief is the equal of any man. It’s unfortunate having to consider her candidacy in these terms, but also a reminder that many of feminism’s goals remain unaccomplished. Obama’s eagerness to militarily intervene in Pakistan is equally disconcerting, but it’s difficult to lose sight of the fact that as a presidential contender in November, he would probably attract more support than the former first lady.

It would be ideal for the moron in the White House to be replaced by a genius, but that is beyond the realm of possibility: someone with a clear-eyed view of recent events would have recognised, for instance, that Benazir’s martyrdom was facilitated by the Bush administration’s disastrous post-9/11 policies. The best one can hope for, in the interim, is a knowledgeable and reasonably intelligent incumbent who realises not only that the occupation of Iraq is an unforgivable travesty, but also that firepower alone cannot offer a solution to the travails of Afghanistan or Pakistan.

Beyond that, we have to tackle our problems ourselves. But the Bush administration’s shortsighted support for Musharraf clearly hinders the prospects of a brighter future. The kind of assistance Pakistan requires was summed up by a letter to Bush signed by eight senators, in which they asked him to use his influence on the ex-military dictator to push for a UN inquiry into the Bhutto murder plot, secure the reinstatement of the unfairly dismissed Supreme Court justices and the release of all those arrested during the emergency, and arrange for a reconstituted election commission that meets the approval of the main political parties. Their appeal is likely to fall on deaf ears, and perhaps that’s all for the best: notwithstanding the harm caused by American intervention, the ideal solution to Pakistan’s multifarious problems would come from within.

That holds true regardless of who replaces George Bush: no dramatic changes can be expected in Washington’s approach towards Pakistan, notwithstanding the anti-Musharraf rhetoric of some aspirants, which is intended essentially to capitalise on anti-Bush sentiments among the American electorate. Had it been otherwise, at least one of them would have had the prudence to realise and the courage to point out that Pakistan’s current plight is not exactly unrelated to US entanglement in this country, not only during the past eight years but over at least three decades.

What Pakistan desperately requires is a break in this relationship, or at least a recalibration, but that is as an unlikely consequence of this month’s electoral exercise here as it is of the main event in November

Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.