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Joe Biden Obama’s VP Nominee? Implications for U.S.-Pakistan Relations

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.

DISCLAIMER

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.

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Sharif Not Biden’s Sher

Senator Joe Biden commented during yesterday’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Pakistan:

“One of the things that startled us the day after the election is the first comment by [Nawaz] Sharif…[It] was that he wanted to see the release of A.Q. Khan. That was the first official statement he made, to the best of our knowledge. Fortunately, he [Nawaz Sharif] did not win outright, but it reinforces your [Dick Lugar’s] point about the national hero status [of A.Q. Khan].”

Apparently Joe Biden wasn’t watching Nawaz on the campaign trail. The former prime minister said, just days before the election, that he’d consider nominating A.Q. Khan as president of Pakistan.

Biden also noted in the hearing that he found Asif Zardari to be clean and articulate.

What a pity. They got off to a great start (see above) and share the same propensity to let their tongues get ahead of their brains.

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Pakistan in the Nevada Democratic Presidential Debate

There was an exchange about Pakistan in tonight’s Democratic presidential debate in Nevada. Here’s a summary:

Joe Biden, the only candidate who’s offered a substantive Pakistan policy, said that he opposed maintaining aid at same levels to Pakistan if Musharraf does not take off his uniform and hold free and fair elections. After noting that he spoke to both Bhutto and Musharraf prior to Bush did the same, Biden — as he stated on CNN’s Late Edition on Sunday — called for the cessation of F-16 and P-3 assistance to Pakistan if Musharraf fails to meet the basic demands above. He said that Musharraf is not a sole player in Pakistan; he needs to keep his military happy. He called for a move from a Musharraf policy to a Pakistan policy, reaching out to Pakistan’s middle class by, for example, increasing education aid.

Bill Richardson said that he is worried that cutting off military aid could undermine U.S. relations with Pakistan’s military. He argued that the problem with U.S. policy toward Pakistan is that “we got our principles wrong.” The U.S., he claims, sent the message to Musharraf that it values security more than human rights. Richardson stated that he would make U.S. aid to Pakistan conditional. He would call on Musharraf to end the state of emergency, permit Bhutto to run in elections, resign from the army, hold free and fair elections, and restore the deposed Supreme Court justices. He added that Islamic parties only get 15% of the vote in Pakistan. In free and fair elections, he believes that moderates can win. Human rights, says Richardson, are at times more important than national security; America’s strengths aren’t just its military and economy, but also its values.

John Edwards listed some “basic goals” with respect to Pakistan. They are: make sure that extremists in Pakistan’s northwest are under control; support democratic reformers; elections take place in January; the country’s nuclear weapons are under control. He added that Pakistan is a “living, breathing example” of how the Bush administration’s nuclear policy won’t work in the long-term. The only way to keep the world safe, says Edwards, is to lead a long-term international effort to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

Barack Obama described Pakistan as a “great example” of how human rights and defense of U.S. national security are “complementary.” Pakistan’s democracy, he says, would strengthen the battle against extremists; greater repression would worsen the situation. Obama said that propping up anti-democratic elements with make the U.S. less safe. He also mentioned Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, stating that he would do everything in his capacity as president to ensure that its nukes don’t get in the hands of extremists.

Christopher Dodd distinguished himself from the pack — in his ignorance of Pakistan’s political-security predicament. In a sweeping generalization that countered historical precedent in Pakistan and current opinion polls, Dodd said that in free and fair elections “in these countries” — i.e. Pakistan and the other 50+ Muslim majority countries — “the Islamic Jihad or Islamic Brotherhood” would win 85% of the vote. The odds of Islamists sweeping elections in Pakistan are as low as Dodd’s chances of winning a Democratic primary. Firstly, there is no organization such as the Islamic Jihad or Islamic Brotherhood in Pakistan. The Islamic Jihad is in Egypt and Palestine; the Islamic Brotherhood — a non-existent group, but presumably a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood — is restricted to the Arab world. The handful of Islamist parties managed their best performance ever in the 2003 elections; with the assistance of intelligence services, they formed the Muttahida Majlis-e Amal (MMA) and got 16.8% of National Assembly seats. Dodd’s 85% nightmare is just that — a nightmare; a scary dream — not reality. In the end, national security trumps human rights in Dodd’s view.

Hillary Clinton offered a discordant perspective on the Pakistan ‘problem’. After stating that national security outweighs human rights, she reverted to her ‘blame it on Bush’ strategy, and stated that the American president failed in capitalizing on the post-9/11 opportunity to achieve democracy in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Clinton noted she would inform Musharraf that his recent actions are not in his interest. She also said that she asked the Pakistani president earlier in the year if he wanted a special envoy for his country — presumably to negotiate a deal with Benazir Bhutto — and that despite his reply in the affirmative, the White House had not appointed such a person. Clinton seems to be unaware of Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher’s intimate — and perhaps excessive — role in the Bhutto-Musharraf negotiations.

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Joe Biden’s Pakistan Policy

In an address earlier this morning at a New Hampshire college, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, announced a fairly comprehensive Pakistan policy — the first candidate to do so.

It consists of four main elements:

  1. Triple non-security aid, to $1.5 billion annually.  For at least a decade.  This aid would be unconditioned: it’s our pledge to the Pakistani people.  Instead of funding military hardware, it would build schools, clinics, and roads.”
  2. Condition security aid on performance. We should base our security aid on clear results.   We’re now spending well over $1 billion annually, and it’s not clear we’re getting our money’s worth.  I’d spend more if we get better returns—and less if we don’t.”
  3. Help Pakistan enjoy a ‘democracy dividend.’  The first year of democratic rule should bring an additional $1 billion — above the $1.5 billion non-security aid baseline.  And I would tie future non-security aid — again, above the guaranteed baseline — to Pakistan’s progress in developing democratic institutions and meeting good-governance norms.
  4. Engage the Pakistani people, not just their rulers.  This will involve everything from improved public diplomacy and educational exchanges to high impact projects that actually change people’s lives.

His speech’s conclusion is noteworthy:

“I believe that Pakistan can be a bridge between the West and the global Islamic community.  Most Pakistanis want a lasting friendship with America.  They respect and admire our society.  But they are mystified over what they see as our failure to live up to our ideals.

The current crisis in Pakistan is also an opportunity to start anew… to build a relationship between Pakistan and the United States upon which both our peoples can depend – and be proud.”

 

 

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Editor:

Arif Rafiq, a Washington, DC-based consultant on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. [About]

For Media and Consulting Inquiries:
E-mail // Tel: +1(202) 713-5897

On Twitter:
@PakistanPolicy

On the Radio:
Arif Rafiq regularly appears on the John Batchelor Show Friday nights from 09:30-10:00pm Eastern Time. Tune your dial to 770AM in New York or 630AM in DC. The show appears on affiliates in other cities. Listen live online at WABCRadio.com.
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