Joe Biden, divining rod —Mahmud Sipra

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Pakistan’s gesture of bestowing the Vice President-elect with its highest civilian award is a good one. It recognises Senator Biden’s tireless efforts towards bringing civilian rule in Pakistan

Joe Biden still has a few days left to use the prefix of Senator, a prefix that he has proudly used since he was 29, when he became the youngest senator in US history. Come January 20, he will take the oath of office as Vice President Joseph Biden of the United States of America. In fact, Mr Biden will be Vice President a few minutes before Mr Barack H Obama takes his oath of office as the 44th President of the United States.

Senator Biden’s recent visit to Islamabad — coming as it does just ten days before he occupies the second most powerful office in the Obama administration, should confirm the perception that he is going to be the divining rod of President Obama’s foreign policy. This is not to take anything away from the role that Hillary Clinton will be playing as President Obama’s Secretary of State.

Senator Biden is no stranger to Islamabad, having visited it on numerous occasions in the recent past. This visit, however, should be viewed as the precursor of how Washington is going to deal with Pakistan during the next four years. If some of his statements are anything to go by, then it would seem that the Obama administration is set to expand the dirt road to Islamabad to a dual carriageway. The way it should be.

That bit about being part of “America’s War on Terror” ought to be re-branded to simply read “Pakistan’s War on Terror” from here on. It may go down somewhat better with the Pakistani populace, particularly in a war that wasn’t of their making — to start with, that is.

Biden is sharp enough to understand that Pakistanis would be far better at fighting their own war rather than someone else’s, something the Bush administration never really understood. Imposing a war on someone is one thing, supporting them in their war is entirely a different matter. This is not semantics but recognising the sensitivity of a country that is considered an ally that has historically never let the United States down.

I read somewhere that Senator Biden’s venerable mother was fond of using the phrase: “Clean as a whistle, sharp as a tack”. Few would take issue with that description if one were to apply it to her son today. Joe Biden is that and much more.

Very little has been reported about Senator Biden’s “talks” with President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani last week. I doubt that Mr Zardari or Mr Gilani could have told the Senator anything that he already didn’t know about Pakistan. I suspect that the conversation was probably one sided, with Senator Biden doing most of the talking.

Here are just two examples of the kind of talking that Senator Biden is capable of — even with the President and the Vice President of his own country.

“I was in the Oval Office the other day, and the President asked me what I would do about resignations. I said, ‘Look, Mr President, would I keep Rumsfeld? Absolutely not. And I then turned to Vice President Cheney, who was there, and I said, Mr Vice President, I wouldn’t keep you either if it weren’t constitutionally required.

“I turned back to the President and said, ‘Mr President, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld are bright guys, really patriotic, but they’ve been dead wrong on every major piece of advice given to you. That is why I’d get rid of them, Mr President.”

And then this nugget:

“About six months ago, President Bush said to me: ‘Well, at least I make strong decisions, I lead.’ I said, ‘Mr President, look behind you. Leaders have followers. Nobody is following you. Nobody.’”

These quotes are from an interview Joe Biden gave to Rolling Stone magazine in June 2004, which are insightful and could be useful for those who are likely to come face to face with him as Vice President.

Pakistan today is fighting more than one war. To achieve any measure of success in its war on terror, it must declare war on illiteracy and poverty as well, the two causal factors that Al Qaeda and the Taliban recognised and have exploited with success in this impoverished country. It is going to take much more than military hardware and aid to combat terrorism to pull Pakistan back from the brink. It is going to take patience, understanding and political will on the part of the Obama administration if it wants to see a democratically viable and reliable Pakistan.

Its geo-strategic position notwithstanding, Pakistan must also be seen as a major and influential player in the comity of Muslim nations. That ought to mean something in today’s deeply divided world. Both Obama and Biden understand that.

Pakistan itself ought to do some soul searching of its own. It must understand that it needs to bury some of its own self-serving myths, break away from ancient taboos, the culture of denial and its preoccupation with what its nemesis India is likely to do to it.

India is well aware of the consequences of any military lunacy it might contemplate. Winston Churchill once famously remarked: “India is a geographical term. It is no more a united nation than the Equator.” The received wisdom from that comment would probably translate to: To draw a line is one thing, crossing it would be to do so at one’s own peril.

Prime Minister Gilani was right to invoke God’s help in praying that India not be subjected to any further acts of terrorism, a prayer shared by most people of goodwill.

Pakistan’s gesture of bestowing the Vice President-elect with its highest civilian award is a good one. It recognises Senator Biden’s tireless efforts towards bringing civilian rule in Pakistan. Now if only Pakistan can start recognising the difference between a divining rod and a lightening rod.

Mahmud Sipra is a best selling author and an independent columnist. He can be reached at

Reproduced by permission of the author and DT\01\15\story_15-1-2009_pg3_2



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