Tuesday, August 15, 2006

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A cost/benefit analysis of the Pakistan alliance

In the Wall Street Journal, Shalid Shah has a good story chronicling the tradeoffs of the U.S. alliance with Pakistan:

Pakistan's cooperation in foiling last week's terror plot shows the benefits to the U.S. of good relations with its South Asian ally. But the case of Safdar Sarki shows that such ties also have complications.

Mr. Sarki, a Pakistan-born American citizen, disappeared in Karachi in February, two days before he planned to fly home to El Campo, Texas. For years, Mr. Sarki had been an advocate for Sindhis, the indigenous residents of a southeastern province of Pakistan, who claim they have suffered political and economic discrimination since the 1947 creation of India and Pakistan.

Mr. Sarki, 42 years old, is one of hundreds of political activists who have gone missing in Pakistan over the past decade. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a nongovernmental organization that tracks human-rights issues, says 57 political activists have "disappeared" in the past two years, including prominent figures such as Asif Baladi, a young scholar, and Nawaz Zaunr, a journalist and poet. When asked about the claim of such "disappearances," the spokesman for Pakistan's embassy in Washington said authorities in Pakistan are investigating the cases but have no information on them.

Mr. Sarki's case is different largely because it has drawn the attention of the State Department and some members of Congress. It illustrates a strain that persists as President Bush works to strengthen America's relationship with Pakistan.

Mr. Bush is advocating the spread of democracy around the world, and Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a coup, is an example of the kind of leader Mr. Bush has criticized. The disappearances of Mr. Sarki and others are an aspect of Islamabad's human-rights record that the Bush administration has termed troubling.

Bush's agenda for global democracy promotion seems dormant to me, but this case does highlight the difficulty of pursuing an "transformative" strategy of regime change while trying to maximize intelligence-gathering.

posted by Dan on 08.15.06 at 03:28 PM


Nikolas Gvosdev over at "The Washington Realist" also blogged about this question today while discussing the "losers" in the Israel-Hezbollah affair, and he seems to me to have hit the mark:

"I see two long-term losers beyond Israel and Lebanon.

The first is the 'onward march of democracy.'
Given the central role of semi-authoritarian states like Jordan and Pakistan in the war on terror — particularly after the foiling of the liquid-explosives-on-airliners plot — does anyone in Washington still want to pressure Amman, Islamabad, or any other friendly capital to continue pell-mell with democratization if the end result is to bring into government forces profoundly hostile to U.S. interests? Fuad Siniora’s heart may be in the right place, but with Hezbollah in his coalition his freedom of action is highly constrained. Does anyone want Pervez Musharraf similarly handicapped?"

posted by: CD on 08.15.06 at 03:28 PM [permalink]

The mistake that successive American administrations have made with regard to Pakistan is believing that they must deal with the military, or the Islamists take over. This is bogus. If Musharaff were killed tomorrow, he would be replaced by another general - and what option would he have? Tell the U.S. to leave, with India and Afghanistan on either side complaining about terrorists operating from Pakistani soil? WE may have to spend a few million more to get their help, but they will not turn the U.S. away. The last time the Americans left the scene in 1989, was the start of a decade of decline for Pakistan. They will do whatever it takes to avoid that from happening again.

posted by: KXB on 08.15.06 at 03:28 PM [permalink]

Having an agenda for democracy promotion and having a plan for it are two different things.

President Bush, true to his roots in the permanent campaign, exercises message discipline by referring to democracy and the march of freedom in most of his statements on foreign affairs. For him, this kind of message discipline is its own reward -- it reinforces his image among Americans and conservatives in particular as a man of conviction. Comparisons of his rhetoric with the policy steps actually being taken by his administration would require an interest in the details of foreign affairs that most Americans don't have. President Bush really doesn't have it either, so his public statements and the course of his administration's foreign policy go forward, each vaguely aware of the other but aware also of the other's limited relevance to its own work.

Now, is this any way to run a railroad? Of course not. Eventually public opinion catches up to a President when things are obviously not going well, no matter how good his White House's campaign tradecraft is. The reason message discipline works so well in campaigns, after all, is that campaigns end on election day -- a candidate's message only has to be believed for a finite amount of time. But though the dominance of government by the permanent campaign (which is hardly confined to the Bush administration and in fact long predates it) explains much of the disconnect between rhetoric and policy, it cannot explain all of it.

The biggest missing piece, I think, is a peculiar phenomenon during a time when most Americans think poorly of their government: a notable sense of entitlement among their elected officials. In Bush's case a certain level of personal entitlement is probably baked into the cake to begin with, by virtue of his personal background. It was certainly part of his father's personality. In truth, though, most modern, nationally prominent politicians act as if their positions belonged to them, and people who believe that aren't prone to worry overmuch about whether what they say squares with what they, or the people who work for them, do.

This doesn't mean that Bush isn't sincere about wanting to promote democracy, only that he doesn't think that anything the American government may have to do inconsistent with that objective should reflect on him.

As it happens, I am not that big a believer in promoting democracy everywhere, nor do I think we ought to be "defining democracy down" -- declaring success every time there is a relatively fair election somewhere -- just so we can claim progress. The Musharraf government in Pakistan in particular is about the best we can expect in that country; timely pressure can change its behavior on the margins, but that is about it. The problems start when foreign audiences compare expansive American rhetoric about promoting democracy and freedom -- rhetoric adopted primarily to appeal to the American domestic audience -- with the actions needed to get along with distasteful governments in distasteful places. Typically these actions are the focus of criticism of any administration's foreign policy by its critics, but a more serious problem is the rhetoric. American voters like to hear that their government is conducting a foreign policy based on their values and ideals, and to be fair these do influence foreign policy in all administrations, including this one. But the United States pursues its interests just like any other country, and for its government to deny this by claiming it acts only for idealistic purposes invites suspicion and disbelief.

George Bush will never want to hear this. He has his habits borne of the permanent campaign and he has his devoted circle of family and friends telling him whatever he wants is right, and that's the end of it.

posted by: Zathras on 08.15.06 at 03:28 PM [permalink]


I'm curious how far the tides have turned-- what were your votes in 2000 and 2004?

No snarky comments, just curious.

posted by: Jim on 08.15.06 at 03:28 PM [permalink]

Supposedly we face a dilemma--if we push for democracy, we shut off intelligence information. And we can see clearly now, even if this particular plot proves to have been half-baked, that police work and intelligence are the most helpful safeguard against terrorism. Losing intelligence is a high price to pay.

But what of pushing democracy? What can the US do? It strikes me that it may be true that incumbent governments are dependent on our continued support, and that we could induce them to let opposition voices be heard by threatening to withdraw that support. Most likely, they will find ways to limit their steps toward democracy in ways that will secure their continuance in power. But if we really persisted, we might oblige them to take steps that would bring about major changes. That is, if we did what Bush promised in his inaugural and if he brought his rhetoric in line with reality, maybe it's within our capabilities to topple regimes in Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan, even Saudi Arabia. Regime change maybe we can do, even working as we must on the margins.

But what I wonder is whether we are at all capable of influencing significantly the process of regime replacement. Can we intervene not just to take down a regime but to replace it with one which (a) is democratic or on a path to democracy and (b) supplies us needful intelligence? And is it possible that a democratic regime may be considerably less likely to supply intelligence than an authoritarian one?

If if we take the rhetoric of democracy to heart, and assign democratization our highest priority, how likely is it that we can achieve this outcome with the means we have at hand?

And maybe we can't even accomplish the first step, the destablization. Look at Cuba.

posted by: Kennanite on 08.15.06 at 03:28 PM [permalink]

The U.S. has eased out its friendly despots before - in both South Korea and the Philippines in the 1980's.

posted by: KXB on 08.15.06 at 03:28 PM [permalink]

The Philippines began a democracy of some sort, then Marcos took over, then democracy of a sort was restored.

Korea was a rather nasty military dictatorship that transitioned to a rather healthy democracy.

To what extent was American policy indispensable to the restoration of democracy in the Philippines and the transition in Korea? To what extent did domestic factors determine these processes?

As I recall, there was a domestic democracy movement in Marcos' Philippines of some importance.

posted by: Kennanite on 08.15.06 at 03:28 PM [permalink]

"As I recall, there was a domestic democracy movement in Marcos' Philippines of some importance."

True - and there are plenty of Pakistanis who resent military rule. The military (dominated by Punjabis) has better homes, schools, hospitals than the civilian population. Former military men hold the top spots in military-affiliated companies. Hussain Haqqani, a Pakistani journalist and former aide to Benazir Bhutto chronicles the military's continuous subversion of civilian opposition in "Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military" published by the Carnegie Endowment for Intenational Peace.

posted by: KXB on 08.15.06 at 03:28 PM [permalink]

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