Obama has articulated at least three different positions on Pakistan during the course of the campaign. But besides this inconsistency, he has consistently mocked the contribution of Pakistani soldiers in the war on terror by asserting that the Pakistani army used US aid to launch campaigns against India
Barack Obama’s election as president of the United States has elicited an overwhelmingly positive response from the international community. Is the fervour and hope justified?
No. The Obama love-fest that seems to have infected the entire world, including Pakistan, is not likely to last long. As Bill O’Reilly has aptly reminded us, “The fascinating thing about Obama’s election is that few Americans seem to know exactly how the man is going to govern.”
Obama remains a mystery to supporters and foes alike. From the evidence available to us from the last two years or so, there are several good reasons to temper our enthusiasm for the kind of change he has promised to usher in both domestic and world politics. Pakistanis will be especially well served to adopt an attitude of cautious optimism.
Throughout the campaign, Obama, now President-elect, used Pakistan in a knee-jerk fashion to demonstrate his toughness and machismo in the foreign policy arena. However, the one quality lacking in his stance towards Pakistan was consistency. To my count, Obama articulated at least three different positions on Pakistan during the course of the campaign.
First, in the early part of the primary season, he asserted that the US should go into Pakistan if the Islamist parties in the country were to assume control over its nuclear facilities. The idea that Islamist parties, which have consistently fared poorly in Pakistani elections, will all of a sudden be able to assume power and then go on to control the nuclear facilities of the country shows a remarkable lack of ignorance. As with most of Obama’s countless bloopers throughout the campaign, this one went largely unchallenged.
By the fall of election year, Obama’s script on Pakistan had changed significantly. During his first debate with John McCain, he said he will go into Pakistan if there were top Taliban or Al Qaeda commanders in sight and if the Pakistani government was either unable or unwilling to take them out.
This statement again demonstrates Obama’s naivety in the foreign policy realm. We all know how tough the terrain in Waziristan is, and how difficult it is to distinguish between regular Pashtun tribesmen and the active military commanders affiliated with the Taliban. The idea that the US forces can just go into a territory populated by people belonging to diverse ethnic and ideological orientations, bomb the bad guys and leave without upsetting the already fragile political situation is quite far-fetched.
But again, in Obamaland, anything is possible. By the second debate a few weeks later, Obama had conveniently adopted a new position: that the US should go into Pakistan only if Osama Bin Laden was in sight and the Pakistani government was unable or unwilling to take him out.
The difference between his original position of attacking Pakistan if Islamist parties were to assume control of nuclear facilities and his eventual position of only moving in if bin Laden was in sight is drastic. But more importantly, these inconsistencies fit nicely in a broader trend of adopting and abandoning positions for political expediency.
In American popular opinion, Democrats have consistently fared much worse than Republicans on the question of which party is better equipped to keep America safe at home and better able to execute wars abroad. For example, despite his decorated Vietnam War hero status, Democrat John Kerry lost to incumbent George W Bush in 2004 because he failed to convince the American people that he would make a stronger commander-in-chief.
Aware of this historical deficit, Obama wanted to ensure that he did not fall victim to the Democrats’ perceived weakness on national security. With public opinion on the Iraq war having turned sour, Obama was scoring high points for his initial opposition to that war, arguably the most decisive factor in his defeat of Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries.
But in the general election, Obama needed some other avenues to prove to the public that he was not soft on foreign policy and would be willing to out-hawk John McCain. Pakistan was a perfect scapegoat for Obama to flex his foreign policy muscle and boost his credentials among sceptical segments of the electorate. Bottom-line: sheer political expediency rather than any principled position or value was behind Obama’s flip-flopping on Pakistan.
But it is not his inconsistency that should offend Pakistanis. Rather, the most offensive aspect was his persistently nonchalant attitude towards the sacrifices rendered by brave Pakistani soldiers in the US-led war on terror. Obama made light of Pakistan’s contribution to the war on terror by asserting time and again that the Pakistani army had gulped all the aid it had received from the US and used it to launch campaigns against India.
This assertion is not only unsubstantiated hyperbole; it is highly offensive to Pakistan, especially its armed forces. Regardless of what we might think about now-ousted Pervez Musharraf or about the wisdom of Pakistan’s involvement in the war on terror, we must stand united in condemning any attempt to mock the sacrifices made by our brave soldiers.
Barack Obama’s attitude towards Pakistan is just one example of why we should all be very cautious of jumping on the ‘change’ bandwagon he has so artfully reinvented. As syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer recently commented, Obama is a man with the “political intelligence of a Bill Clinton harnessed to the steely self-discipline of a Vladimir Putin.” This is a man who will throw any principle or loyalty under the bus if doing so advances his political ambitions. As Pakistanis, we would be well served by curbing our enthusiasm for President-elect Obama.
The jury is still out on whether Obama will be an agent of change we can believe in or of change we would love to forget.
SherAli Tareen is a Doctoral Student in Islamic Studies at Duke University. He is a native of Quetta, Pakistan
Reproduced by permission of DT