Nov 14, 2009

Hillary's new 'blank page'

By Shamshad Ahmad

What successive US leaders over the past 60 years couldn't do, Hillary Clinton, during her first-ever visit to this country as secretary of state, has done. Despite the agitated mood in the country over the Kerry-Lugar Bill (KLB) issue, she managed to reach out to the people of Pakistan plunging into an unprecedented public diplomacy and communicating directly with a cross-section of our society. Her interaction with our media and the youth, in particular, was lively and frank and served a purpose that could not have been served by any set of officially in-laid "talking points" on either side.

Ms Clinton was not expecting the "hard talk" she had with our anchorpersons and students. She heard things that beguiled interlocutors in Islamabad's governmental cocoonery could not have dared say. One must give her credit for being patient in her town-hall meetings with outspoken audiences who represented the new self-assured face of Pakistan. She could not have had a better opportunity to respond to the concerns and apprehensions in Pakistani minds over the US role and activities in and around the country.

It was an unusual engagement in public diplomacy with no holds barred. Each side made its case well. The US secretary of state did her utmost to clear the overcast atmosphere of the last few months. On the KLB issue, she was blunt enough to tell her audiences that nobody was stuffing the aid package down their throats, and it was up to the people of Pakistan "to take it or leave it." The US Congress had passed the legislation in keeping with its normal procedures and the final law was meant only to serve the US national interests. It is now for us to understand that "beggars cannot be the choosers."

In terms of atmospherics, Ms Clinton did seem to be overly cautious. Unlike one of her distinguished predecessors who, on her first visit to Pakistan in the late 90s as secretary of state came wearing a shorter skirt than she normally wore only to signal her distaste for Pakistani culture, in her public appearances, Ms Clinton remained fully conscious of local sensitivities, and was effusive in praising Pakistani costumes and cuisine while speaking fondly of her "love" for Pakistan and its culture.

Ms Clinton left a message in Pakistan. After eight years of the Bush administration, during which suspicions between the two countries had deepened, Pakistan now had a "friendly" new administration in Washington where, according to her, both she and her president, Barack Obama were seeking to build a new bilateral relationship to be based on mutual respect. Getting this message across was an uphill task, she herself admitted while hoping that her visit would turn a new page in the US-Pakistan relationship.

But Ms Clinton's new page turned out to be blank. While on a "fence-mending" mission, she should have been more careful in some of her responses to questions from perturbed minds. On the continuing US drone attacks, she abruptly said: "Al Qaeda has had safe haven in Pakistan since 2002. I find it hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are and couldn't get them if they really wanted to." Even neutral American observers found this brash remark totally out of line with the spirit of her mission and also insulting for the Pakistan government, its army and its intelligence services.

Turning one page, in any case, will not change the 62-year-long chequered history of a relationship which throughout its existence has lacked continuity, a larger conceptual framework, and a shared vision beyond each side's "narrowly based and vaguely defined" issue-specific priorities. It has been a curious, if not enigmatic relationship as it never had any conflict of interest and yet it experienced repeated interruptions in its intensity as well as integrity.

This unusual relationship has seen ups and downs with rotating phases of "engagement and estrangement" depending on the nature of regional and global dynamics. And every US "engagement" with Pakistan was issue-specific with no shared perspectives. The spells of close ties between the two countries have been and continue to be single-issue engagements of limited or uncertain duration.

Curiously, each engagement or "honeymoon" period coincided with a military or military-controlled government in Pakistan and a Republican administration in Washington. Most of the "estrangement" phases of the US-Pakistan relationship happened when they had a Democrat administration and we had a civilian-elected government in Pakistan. This tradition generated its own anti-Americanism in Pakistan with a perception that the US was not a reliable ally and did not want democracy to take root in this country.

This perception is deeply seared into Pakistan's collective memory. One fears that the KLB issue is the beginning of yet another "estrangement" phase in our troubled relationship. On her part, Ms Clinton wanted us to forget the unpleasant past and look towards a promising future. She assured our people that this time the US will not abandon them as it did after the Soviet withdrawal. She repeatedly said the current US engagement with Pakistan is going to be enduring, not transitory or evanescent.

Ms Clinton went to the extent of comparing the US-Pakistan relationship to an indissoluble marriage. And perhaps unconsciously, she arrogated philanderer hubby's role to the US itself. A woman in any society knows what it means to be the partner of an unfaithful husband in an indissoluble marriage. Unpredictability, neglect and betrayal are the only constant of such expediency-driven conjugality.

She promised that she and her president were determined to redress this historic sense of injustice among the Pakistani people. The change of leadership in Washington did provide a watershed opportunity for "remaking" of the US-Pakistan relationship. Vice-President Joe Biden envisioned a new people-centered approach in transforming this "transactional" relationship into a normal one.

Ms Clinton must have seen how the people in Pakistan feel disturbed by their country being treated as America's traditional fall guy. They consider the US responsible for all their terrorism-related problems. They are concerned over the growing Indo-US nexus beginning with their defence and nuclear deals three years ago and now developing into a multi-dimensional strategic partnership with ominous implications for the critical balance of power in the region and for Pakistan's legitimate security interests.

Somehow, our people also blame the US for invariably being on the wrong side in their traditional power struggle in the arena of domestic politics. They see US footprints in most "constitutional subversions" and "judicial circumventions" in this country, and an invisible role in our shadowy political deals including the notorious NRO. Our dictators, civilian or non-civilian, have always been Washington's blue-eyed boys.

On a lighter side, Ms Clinton perhaps didn't notice that her visit to Lahore did bring an instant change. Governor Salman Taseer while receiving her took off his dark glasses only to show her that he too has blue eyes. Whatever his motive, without the dark glasses, he now at least sees the world with his real eyes.

But for Ms Clinton's US, Pakistan must mean its real people, not the chintzy class of its money-gulping and land-grabbing ruling politico-bureaucratic elite. To endure and flourish, the US-Pakistan equation must be based on sovereign equality and mutual respect. Our people may resent US power and its overbearing conduct but not its ideals of liberty, justice and democracy which they want for themselves too. Washington's new focus must be on the people rather than the corrupt ruling elite who have always abused this relationship for their own self-serving purposes.

No comments:

Post a Comment