Pakistan, arguably the most important U.S. foreign policy issue right now, took up a few minutes in last night’s one and a half hour presidential debate.
In short, the discussion lacked substance. It was mostly a regurgitation of dated talking points from last year’s party debates. As such, the brief exchange confirmed the pre-existing positions of both candidates on U.S.-Pakistan relations.
But much has changed in Pakistan since last year. The situation in Pakistan is so volatile that each week brings ground changing developments. And so it is worrisome that both Barack Obama and John McCain have clearly not adapted their positions since the primaries.
The partisan debate on the cable channels (particularly DNC TV [MSNBC] and RNC TV [Fox News]) is nauseating and misleading. In reality, both candidates have their strengths and weaknesses on Pakistan. Combine their strengths and you have a solid Pakistan policy.
OBAMA GOOD FOR CIVILIANS, BAD FOR MILITARY
Obama’s support for Pakistan’s fledgling democracy and appropriation of the Biden plan, which calls for vastly increasing development aid, is excellent. It is an integral part of a transition toward a full-fledged Pakistan policy.
But Obama seems unaware of the clear and present economic danger in Pakistan. The Biden-Lugar bill will not be passed till next year. And it will take time for funds to trickle into the country. [Plus, much of it will be eaten up by USAID and contractors.] While Obama pats himself on the back for a proposal that is perhaps half a year from actually impacting Pakistan, more and more Pakistanis go hungry. Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves are dwindling, its rupee is plummeting in value, and inflation is dangerously high.
If Obama were truly serious about Pakistan, he would have commented on the new Friends of Pakistan initiative — a coordinating body of Pakistan donors, including the G-7, China, and Saudi Arabia that had its first meeting on Friday. He would have offered specific ways the United States could help Pakistan now, in this great time of need.
Furthermore, Obama still finds it necessary to compare his “Pakistan policy” to the Bush administration’s old “Musharraf policy.” With Musharraf out of the scene, after an OK from the Bush administration, this is an antiquated talking point. It’s a different ball game. No need to talk about the past.
Also, Obama seems to be unaware of the failures of Pakistan’s fledgling civilian government. Zardari has concentrated power in his own hands. His style of governance (he’s effectively governed the country, at least partially, since February) has focused on dividing and conquering opponents and deferring major issues (such as the judges’ restoration and parliamentary debate on the war on terror). On this, Obama is silent.
Obama is most known in Pakistan for his call to go after high-value al-Qaeda and Taliban targets inside Pakistan, if Islamabad is unwilling or incapable to do so. Pakistanis abhor this policy. Obama’s statements contradicts his supposition that America’s standing in the world is important to U.S. national security and needs to be improved. Not only does this policy hurt U.S. relations with the Pakistani public — 165 million strong it is — it also alienates Pakistan’s military. And the worst thing Washington can do right now is pit Pakistani institutions against one another and push away Pakistan’s military — especially when they are essential for security purposes. At this point, it seems as if Obama would not bode well for U.S.-Pakistan military ties, which have already deteriorated considerably. And it is imperative that these ties improve. Plus, a pincer attack on the Pakistani military would destabilize Pakistan, compelling the military to intervene or leading to the decay of its security apparatus.
MCCAIN GOOD FOR MILITARY, BAD FOR CIVILIANS
McCain has yet to really come to terms with the existence of a civil, democratic government in Pakistan. He fails to include Pakistan in his proposed League of Democracies. He seems in denial — or his talking points have yet to be updated — so much that he is confused as to what the president’s name is.
McCain masterfully dished out the tricky names of Eastern European leaders, yet referred to Asif Ali Zardari as “Kardari.” Perhaps it was a Freudian slip. Zardari is, in a sense, the Karzai of Pakistan. [It's ok, Pakistani newsreaders and commentators frequently mispronounce the two candidates' names. Barack is "Barrack" (as in military barracks) and McCain is "Mccann." Besides, Bush didn't even know Musharraf's name in 2000.]
But it also demonstrates the greatest flaw in McCain’s Pakistan policy: he has failed to adapt it to a post-Musharraf Pakistan.
While Obama would likely develop stronger relations with Pakistan’s civilian government, McCain seems like he would strengthen ties with Pakistan’s military. His Pakistan policy seems more influenced by Richard Armitage rather than Ashley Tellis (the architect of the U.S.-India nuclear deal). This is a critical half of the battle. Pakistan’s military has been and will for the near to midterm be a major power broker in Pakistan. It is obviously essential to resolving Pakistan’s security challenges. But ties between the U.S. and Pakistani militaries have deteriorated considerably in recent months. [Meanwhile, Pakistan's army chief has just completed a five day visit to China, where he will be shown "the money."]
McCain was right to criticize Obama’s idea of unilaterally striking high-value targets in Pakistan. Though Obama’s idea is consistent with Bush administration policy, as I have stated earlier, it does not make it right. McCain smartly noted that even if something like that has to be done, you’d don’t announce it publicly — especially when you are violating the sovereignty of an ally!
Also, the Arizona senator seems to have strong relations with Gen. David Petraeus, who will be running the show in Southwest Asia. The present administration’s Pakistan policy seems to have been fractured within (VP’s office vs. State Department; CIA vs. parts of DoD/NSC). McCain seems like he would have the confidence of his own military command and (partly due to the weakness of his own vice presidential candidate) would maintain a uniform policy throughout government.
Finally, McCain’s positions on Pakistan (sans the flaws) reflect a realism that is sorely lacking in many of other foreign policy positions, which have been tainted by a piecemeal adoption of neoconservatism.
MCBAMA GOOD FOR COMPREHENSIVE U.S-PAKISTAN RELATIONS
Both candidates fail to understand the immense gravity of the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Both have called for an additional 2-3 brigades for Afghanistan, when independent analysts say at least five or six are needed.
But neither the candidates, nor most in the U.S. policy community, truly understands the comprehensive failure that is Afghanistan. Despite the presence of tens of thousands of foreign troops in Afghanistan, the country is expected to face a major food shortage this winter. Karzai, once seen as a saint among sinners, is becoming a typical corrupt third world dictator. His curbs on the media, dancing with war lords, drug dealing brother, and bribe taking office have made him not only impotent, but hated.
Obama is right to tell Karzai to shape up, but it is also necessary to bring more Afghan power brokers (i.e. war lords) to the table, and, God forbid, think of a U.S. exit strategy. These are the tough issues that will have to be dealt with after the election.
In respect to a Pakistan policy, Obama’s is more promising. McCain offers strengths vis-a-vis relations with Pakistan’s military and respect for its sovereignty that Obama fares miserably on.
Combine Obama’s promise for strong ties with Pakistani democrats and McCain’s likelihood of restoring ties with the Pakistan Army, and you have a solid Pakistan policy.
Note: I wonder why Obama did not note in the debate (or other appearances) that he visited Pakistan while in college. He stayed at the home of Pakistan’s most recent interim president and caretaker prime minister, Muhammad Mian Soomro. Perhaps Obama does not want to invite further claims of Muslimness. Perhaps Obama needs to grow a pair and teach these small-minded hillbillies a thing or two. Recommended reading: Hofstader’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics.
Another Note: Some Democratic commentators criticized McCain for calling Pakistan a “failed state” when Musharraf took over. They spun the comment to suggest that McCain called the Pakistan of today a failed state (wouldn’t be a major stretch, actually), which he did not. Pakistan was on the verge of becoming a failed state when Musharraf took over in 1999. The reasons for that are manifold, but McCain was not wrong. A debate over whether Pakistan was a failed state or near that status is too technical for the U.S. presidential election. Long story short, McCain was neither wrong, nor offensive (unless you’re Nawaz Sharif).