Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Wagging Our Own Tail: Changing U.S. Policy toward Pakistan

There is an interesting piece out of the Center for Strategic and International Studies on America's relationship with Pakistan and the administration of President Pervez Musharaff. It gets to the heart of a fundamental tension that has bedeviled American foreign policy since the United States first took the stage as a great power in the late nineteenth century; namely, the extent to which America supports foreign governments that are ideologically and ethically problematic but that serve (by whatever estimation) American interests abroad.
This tension is largely inevitable. On the one hand, the United States has always conceived of itself as a champion of liberty whose foreign dealings should transcend crass Machiavellian politics in favor of promoting a liberal economic and political world order. On the other hand, to be a great power (and thus have the ability to influence world events) is to roll in the muck of international relations. In order to preserve its place, promote its interests, and indeed advance the moral and ideological causes that befit its lofty ideals, America cannot always keep her hands clean. She must, at times, prioritize threats, make compromises with unsavory actors, and engage in, for lack of a better phrase, imperial undertakings. In practice, this can mean allying with (or, if we are to abandon euphemism, buying) regimes with less-than-exemplary human rights records, loose relationships with the rule of law and limited democratic or popular legitimacy. F.D.R. best summed up the strategy when referring to Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza GarcĂ­a: "He's a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch."

So ends theory.

In practice, some imperfect synthesis of idealism and practicality must govern American policy. The long-term interests of the United States would not be served by comprehensive disengagement from world affairs, or even from the internal affairs of other nations. On the other hand, it has been all too easy for successive U.S. governments to exaggerate the importance of client state networks. America won the Cold War because people across the Soviet Empire became fed up with a decrepit, broken system and abandoned it in favor of what they saw as a better model. America's selling weapons to the Shah, supporting the Contras in Central America, propping up corrupt dictators in Vietnam and funneling cash and arms to the Afghani Mujihadeen put some pressure on the USSR, and in the early days of the conflict may have checked the Soviets’ more expansionist impulses, but I have a difficult time believing that such activities played a decisive role in the contest's outcome.

On the other hand, many of America’s more ill-considered client relationships have come back to haunt her both during the Cold War and especially during its highly fluid aftermath. An exhaustive list would be impractical here, but consider the anti-American vitriol that gripped the Iranian populace after years under the Shah’s repressive rule; anger that enabled Khomenei and his followers to grab the levers of the Iranian state. Consider too the virus of Islamic terror that was allowed to take root in the desolation of post-war Afghanistan once America lost interest in her erstwhile clients there. The U.S.’s pseudo-colonial legacy in its own hemisphere must bear much of the blame for the popularity of anti-American grandstanding in Latin America, from the aging example of Fidel Castro to its newer, somewhat more clownish incarnation in Hugo Chavez. I bring up these points to illustrate the care, vision and foresight that must, but too often does not, inform America’s decisions regarding which governments to support and how. Patron-client relationships may be useful; however, particularly in the modern context, they are fraught with dangers.

I therefore tentatively propose some general questions which American policy-makers ought to ask themselves before commencing or renewing support for regimes worldwide.

· To what extent does this regime govern according to liberal ideals? I am not a neo-conservative. I do not believe that each and every government around the world can or should instantaneously transform into a democracy along Western lines. That said, I am conscious of the fact that the people around the world who most loudly denounce liberal ideas as ‘incompatible’ with their own people’s cultural and historical experience tend to be those with some stake in theocratic or authoritarian rule. If a regime manifestly and clearly ignores the most basic tenets of human freedom and dignity, U.S. planners ought to be wary of committing American resources and political capital to propping it up.

· To what extent does the regime have the will or institutional capacity to reform? U.S. support for less-than-savory governments is often justified in terms of “constructive engagement” (a phrase used during the Reagan era to explain American dealings with apartheid South Africa). The notion is that American support buys leverage over the regime’s behavior, leverage which over time can pressure the regime into evolving more robust liberal institutions without all the violence, chaos and uncertainty that would accompany a more rapid shift. Though this is often dismissed as a cynical justification for political expedience, history has at times vindicated the strategy. The end of the Second World War saw Taiwan and South Korea ruled by repressive, authoritarian dictatorships that received unflagging military and economic aid from the United States. Over the years, however, the regimes in both those countries have transformed into reasonably well-consolidated democracies. The question for American planners, though, is in what direction the tide is moving. Is there evidence of a growing middle class that is frustrated by authoritarian political strictures, or is the populace made up of a tiny kleptocracy ruling over a sea of impoverished, embittered farmers and laborers? The former situation may have the potential to evolve into something more in line with American principles, the latter is a time-bomb waiting to explode. Little good has come from supporting governments that consistently repress and infuriate their own people, and the long-term result is likely to cause the U.S. far more headaches than the short-term strategic gains are worth.

· Is the tail wagging the dog? The whole point of a client state network, especially when one considers the compromises with one’s own values that must be made in order to build it, is to create a network of allies that will, when pressed, serve one’s strategic interests. Often, though, great powers have unwittingly gotten themselves into situations where their clients actually exercise the most leverage. Nasser’s Egypt during the 1950s is a classic example. The Egyptian dictator skillfully played the Soviet Union and the United States off one another, engaging in a bidding war for loyalty through which he extracted economic aid and high-tech weapons from both countries without having to significantly compromise the sovereignty of his own. In a more modern context, ‘moderate’ regimes across the Muslim world frequently present themselves as the only bulwark against the amorphous specter of radical Islam, extracting aid and political support by making themselves seem to be the only viable option, while making no substantive moves towards political reform. The veracity of their dire claims is, in my view, disputable at best, and American statesmen should consider reevaluating the extent of U.S. support for such governments.

This brings us, then, back to Pakistan. The news out of Islamabad in recent months raises some troubling questions about the effectiveness of American policy there. Since the September 11 attacks, the United States has significantly stepped up aid to the Musharaff regime, reasoning that Pakistan must play a vital role in any American attempt to stabilize Afghanistan and combat radical Islam more generally. Our grants of weapons and economic assistance have indeed contributed to a more robust Pakistani army that could in theory be of great help to the United States, but the evidence indicates that America is not getting a favorable strategic return on its investment. The authors at CSIS note that the rank and file of the Pakistani army, the organ of state that has received the most significant American support, has significant sympathies for many radical Islamic groups. Indeed, since the early days of the American invasion, reports have surfaced of the Pakistani military undermining U.S. intelligence gathering and anti-terrorist operations, while doing a woefully pitiful job fighting the tribal militias that give quarter and support to al Quaeda and Taliban forces. We should not forget that Osama bin Laden is generally believed to be hiding somewhere in the Pakistani hinterlands.

Meanwhile, on the political front, Gen. Musharaff is clearly wearing out his welcome in the eyes of the Pakistani populace. The army that American has helped build up is being used as an instrument of repression by an increasingly authoritarian military regime. The system of checks and balances that had heretofore given the government some measure of accountability, in particular the Judiciary, are being blatantly assaulted by Musharaff, arousing the ire of a population fed up with the General’s brand of politics. CSIS also notes that American aid for Pakistani education – one of the ways American can help the people of Pakistan rather than just the army – has been barely worth mentioning. This is significant because radical Islamic institutions often provide an alternative for Pakistanis seeking an education. It should be remembered that one of the major reasons that the Iranian Revolution took on an Islamic character was that Muslim institutions provided the only open political space under the rule of the Shah. We must work to make sure that the same situation does not evolve in Pakistan.

I am heartened to see that, unlike so many times in the past, events are causing many American elites to question the nature of U.S. support to Musharaff before things reach critical mass. It is my hope that a reorientation of American policy can convince Musharaff to negotiate a political settlement that will put his nation back on the road to democracy. Though her government was widely derided as corrupt, a return of Benazir Bhutto to some type of power-sharing arrangement could mollify the populace temporarily while a constitutional transfer of power is arranged. None of this will happen; however, if Musharaff believes he has unconditional American support (if his tail can wag our dog, so to speak). The U.S. must be willing to risk some instability for the sake of encouraging change in Pakistan. By all reports, the percentage of the population that subscribes to the tenets of radical Islam there remains miniscule, but such ideologies are fed and grow in an environment of stagnation and repression, and have particular potency in the context of revolutionary chaos. The Pakistani people deserve to be trusted enough to determine the political future of their country before things get to that point, and the United States ought to recognize that standing in the way of positive change is likely as not to come back to haunt it in years to come.

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