May 232008

THE new government’s foreign policy, especially its links with the US, need to be critically examined. There are many who believe that the new regime will act to do America’s bidding. In fact, some even believe that a lowly police SHO is transferred on the orders of the US embassy in Islamabad.

Such a perception is problematic at a time when Pakistan and the rest of the world are confronted with the war on terror. Greater scepticism about this relationship is bound to create mistrust which does not help anyone.

Recently, the current US ambassador to Pakistan indicated her surprise at the anxiety that middle-class Pakistanis feel and express towards the US. A few inquiries would help her discover the reason for this. In fact, if she were to investigate a bit more she would know how firmly ordinary Pakistanis believe that their country is run with the help of the three A’s: the army, America and Allah. A popular perception is that nothing moves in Pakistan without direct orders from Washington, D.C., and that the change of government and the restoration of the judiciary are two matters partly determined by taking into consideration American interests.

Even ambassador Anne Patterson’s frustration over why Pakistanis dislike the US, despite its military and economic assistance, is not something new. Her predecessors probably felt the same way. Although US-Pakistan relations date back to the 1950s, there is no improvement in terms of the public perception of the relationship. The reason for this lack of any visible improvement is quite simple. The US has always focused on Pakistan’s elite, the policymakers and the government which tend to abandon the US in times of political crises to earn greater legitimacy. Historically, Islam and anti-Americanism are two agendas which are used by leaders to win public support during troubled times.

Surely, there are huge problems in America’s larger foreign policy scheme that creates anxiety among the general public in Pakistan and the rest of the Muslim world. However, it is important to recognise that the leadership which Washington so trusts has never tried to minimise the credibility deficit in Pakistani and American societies. For instance, the previous regime was in the forefront of trying to project itself as the only protector of US interests in Pakistan while the rest of the Pakistanis were portrayed as fundamentalists and extremists.

The bulk of Pakistan does not know the US or even share the windfall of the financial benefits enjoyed by the policymaking elite in Islamabad. However, the common man experiences the impact of the troubled relationship every time there is an embargo or when they are told that the country has been abandoned by the US yet again.

Bilateral relations date back to the 1950s when Pakistan joined two American-sponsored security alignments, Seato and Cento. Financial and material assistance played a major role in building up and strengthening the military and civil bureaucratic infrastructure which many believe was the main cause for the imbalance between the military and political institutions in Pakistan. During the 1950s, Pakistan received almost the same amount of aid as, perhaps, Israel. However, the relationship came to a standstill with the first embargo in 1965 during the second India-Pakistan war. Later, the alignment was resurrected during the 1980s ending with another decade of sanctions in October 1990.

On both occasions, the relationship began to change at the end of the period of convergence of objectives between the two countries. The security alignment was meant to fight the communist power and not India. America’s allies in Pakistan never told the general public that they were in the relationship not under coercion but due to mutual interests. The Ayub and Zia regimes were interested in money and material benefits. The policy was made as much on the basis of realpolitik from this side as on the other. At times, benefits were at a very personal level as in the case of Pakistan’s finance minister under Ayub Khan who had links with the CIA.

As far as the US was concerned, successive leaderships in Pakistan pursued their interests. However, the stakes were very personal in nature. It is also a fact that the American engagement with Pakistan since the 1950s has resulted in dividends, as far as Washington’s interests were concerned, in terms of creating a strong pro-US lobby inside Pakistan’s corridors of power that included the armed forces. These are the elements that find the US beneficial both financially and politically.

While the engagement brings money and other benefits, the period of disengagement is used to gain political capital. Our Israel policy is a clear example of the gaps in our own policy. While leaders tend to build personal links with Israel to benefit personally, very little effort is made to take the nation along or to educate the people about these initiatives.

The main problem with the relationship has always been the lack of institutionalisation. While individual leaders or prominent government functionaries developed greater understanding with individuals or institutions on the other side, very little was done to develop institutional links that would strengthen bilateral relations.

An example of comparative patron-client relations includes ties between Israel and the US versus Pakistan and the US. In the former’s case, greater dividends have accrued to Tel Aviv from the linkage because of its ability to lobby American policymakers and its own internal political strength which has never been Pakistan’s forte.

Today, Islamabad cannot disengage itself from Washington because it will not serve our national interest not to have cordial relations with a global power. It is not just about the war on terror but making use of the relationship to build our human resources and carry out other infrastructural development. Surely, this involves opportunity cost in terms of watching over American interests in this region.

Politics is rarely about moralpolitik. It is mostly about realpolitik. However, power politics does not mean capitulation to a bigger ally. There have been occasions when Islamabad stood its ground, as its independent stance on the nuclear programme and relations with India and China. So, it cannot be argued that Pakistan does not have the capacity to act independently while cooperating with Washington.

Nevertheless, we must understand that a lot of the problems which seem to occur in conducting our foreign relations are really a product of our own political weakness rather than the power of our bigger ally. If those problems persist, rumours of toeing a particular line without getting sufficient benefits will haunt us yet again.

The writer is an independent strategic and political analyst.

Courtesy: Daily Dawn, 23/5/2008

 Posted by at 6:08 pm

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