Once again, Washington is in a tizzy about Pakistan.
US officials have long had nightmares about loose nukes and radical Islamist coups. For nearly a decade, they have shouted themselves hoarse about militant sanctuaries in the tribal areas. Several months ago they were infuriated by the arrest of a CIA contractor. And now, they are smarting over l’affaire Abbottabad.
Still, they are resolute. Even with many around town calling for aid cut-offs, the Obama administration is feverishly attempting to salvage a relationship that is haemorrhaging mistrust (witness its endorsement of John Kerry’s latest fence-mending trip to Pakistan). We must get it right in Pakistan, Washington declares, because this, is the one nation where we cannot afford to fail. Abandonment is not an option.
Alas, across much of America, such words fall on deaf ears. Outside the Beltway, Pakistan inspires little more than ignorance or hostility, if not outright indifference. And with the 2012 congressional and presidential elections looming, the views of the American masses will be instrumental in helping determine the fate of one of the world’s most tortured relationships.
Most Americans do not follow foreign affairs — a consequence of geography and the fact that our nation has largely been spared from acts of international terrorism or war on its soil, 9/11 and Pearl Harbour notwithstanding. While media attention after Bin Laden’s death is fixated on reactions of New Yorkers and Washingtonians, it is the Muslim World that has been most traumatised by al Qaeda violence in the post-9/11 era.
So, while Washington may brand Pakistan as the world’s most dangerous nation, relatively few Americans actually know much about it.
To the extent that Americans are aware of Pakistan, it is through a highly reductive lens of insecurity and terrorism —which invites hostility. Such sentiment is not limited to the hoi polloi; recall Congressman Howard Berman — of Kerry-Lugar-Berman fame — speaking of sending billions of aid dollars down a “rat hole”. Earlier this year, a Gallup survey found that only 18 per cent of Americans have positive views of Pakistan — a new low. In fact, only once, over the last 11 years, has the figure surpassed 30 per cent. No wonder so many Americans believe Pakistan sheltered Osama bin Laden; attributing his presence there to mere state incompetence would be too kind.
This should not suggest that Americans obsess around the clock about scary Pakistan. Unlike their countrymen in Washington, Americans are relatively uninterested in national security matters. In polling conducted last month, only one per cent of Americans cited terror or national security as their most important concern (and after Bin Laden’s death, many Americans have claimed to feel safer and more confident about combating global terror). The economy, by far, ranked as the most important concern — hardly a revelation at a time of near-double-digit unemployment and a $14 trillion-and-fast-rising national debt. Hence the reason why, across much of the nation, talk about Bin Laden’s capture petered out after a few days. Americans are consumed by more immediate concerns closer to home, from food inflation to job prospects.
This all holds unsettling implications for US-Pakistan relations. Islamabad has had enough trouble garnering support in some of its chief objectives, such as securing greater market access for textile exports and completing a civil nuclear deal. Such goals — along with continued aid — can only be consummated with the blessing of Capitol Hill, and Congress is held directly accountable by its constituents every two years — including next year. Given the impending elections, the gloomy US economic climate and America’s discontent and disinterest about Pakistan, one can expect Congress to grow more sympathetic to the belief, of many Americans, that helping Pakistan is simply not worth the time or money.
International politics may dictate that Washington pull out all the stops to resuscitate its floundering relationship with Islamabad. However, in the months ahead, domestic anti-Pakistan sentiment will enjoy increasing sway over American policymakers. As one of them once famously observed, all politics is local.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 17th, 2011.