The Democratic National Convention is less than a week away and that means Barack Obama will probably announce his running mate by this weekend.
The talking heads in Washington presently favor Joe Biden, though there are other heavily mentioned alternatives as well as the chance of a surprise pick.
But, if Biden is selected, the implications for U.S.-Pakistan would be many. I’ll discuss four — two on the presidential campaign and two if Obama & Biden win in November.
AN OBAMA-BIDEN TICKET
One, an Obama-Biden ticket would bring together two individuals with a strong track record of supporting democracy and development in Pakistan. Both Obama and Biden have consistently argued that Pakistan’s democratization and cooperation in the war on terror are interconnected. The responses of both Obama and Biden to Benazir Bhutto’s assassination reflected this belief. In contrast, John McCain framed her death in the context of a battle between “moderates” and proponents of “violent Islamic extremism.” Biden has also proposed a massive increase in non-military assistance to Pakistan, which has been well-received there.
Two, the selection of Biden puts added pressure on McCain to re-vamp his Pakistan policy. McCain’s Pakistan policy, at this point, is anchorless and hollow. He hedged his bets on Pervez Musharraf, who is now discredited and out of the scene. Obama and Biden, in contrast, have come out hard on Musharraf for quite some time; they look prescient from Musharraf’s downfall. In fact, Obama criticized McCain today for supporting Musharraf, stating that his opponent “spent years backing a dictator in Pakistan who failed to serve the interests of his own people.”
In this sense, Obama’s advantage on Pakistan (and Afghanistan) mirrors McCain’s on Iraq. The latter’s gamble on the surge has paid out; Obama has had to re-adjust and gingerly embrace the surge’s fruits. One should expect the McCain campaign to make adjustments to a post-Musharraf Pakistan. McCain, afterall, had to adopt the Obama proposal to increase U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
But it’s unclear as to how far he will embrace the democratic set-up in Pakistan. At this point, the likelihood is low — despite the fact that McCain has called for a “League of Democracies.” McCain’s response to Musharraf’s resignation, like his previous statements, emphasizes “stability” and a battle against “violent Islamic extremism.”
Stability, however, requires anchors and Pakistan’s cooperation in war requires local allies; McCain is unclear as to who those individuals/institutions are. It’s a vulnerability for McCain that will be utilized in the presidential (and vice-presidential) debates. Expect Biden to bring up his Pakistan plan a lot. And I imagine McCain’s rejoinders to Obama would accuse the latter of threatening to violate the sovereignty of an ally. But, as I have written earlier, Obama’s threats are consistent with the Bush administration’s policy. The debate is, therefore, superficial.
AN OBAMA-BIDEN ADMINISTRATION
An Obama-Biden administration would, one, likely mean that the vice president’s office will play an active, if not dominant, role in shaping U.S. policy toward Pakistan. This would represent some continuity with the Bush-Cheney administration, in which the vice president has been the major force shaping Washington’s relations with Islamabad. Like Cheney, a Vice President Biden could be the go-to-guy when it comes to Pakistan.
But Biden lacks the unique (and disturbing) personalities traits of Cheney and will likely be more transparent in his dealings. Still, intra-administration turf wars are likely to come about. They exist are natural to such entities. Presently, there are tensions between the vice president’s office and the State Department on Pakistan. While Biden would likely carve out elements of U.S. foreign policy as his own niche/turf (and some of his present Senatorial staffers might prove important), he would have to share space with other foreign policy influencers in the administration, who will likely include Susan Rice and Bruce Riedel. Moreover, Obama’s intelligence and personality lend toward a hands on style of governance. So you won’t find the president hiding in the corner while Mommy and Daddy fight.
Two, Biden, as vice president can provide leverage to have the Biden-Lugar bill passed in the Congress next year. The bill, mentioned above, calls for tripling non-military assistance to Pakistan. Both Obama and Biden have called for building comprehensive, long-term ties with Pakistan — a “Pakistan policy” as opposed to a “Musharraf policy.” The passage of such a bill would mark an early foreign policy achievement for the young administration — though there is a chance it could be conditionalized to the extent that it would be useless.
Forecasting the next administration’s policy toward Pakistan is of questionable utility. Pakistan’s present volatility suggests that U.S.-Pakistan relations could be more shaped by the ground realities in Pakistan than in the United States. When campaign promises and track records meet present exigencies and the burden of responsibility, the latter two take precedence.