More of the same

Published: October 24, 2012

The writer is a senior journalist and has held several editorial positions, including most recently at The Friday Times. He was a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and is currently senior adviser, outreach, at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute

The US presidential debates are over and November 6 will decide whether Barack Obama stays or leaves. The world’s schmaltzy 2008 romance with change is over. That Tuesday on November 4, when Obama delivered the victory speech at Chicago’s Grant Park, there were much tears of joy. Four years of realism have buried that optimism. If Obama loses, not many would shed tears at his loss; if Romney wins, there will be no tears of joy.

The year 2012 is hardnosed. That’s a good, no-nonsense starting point. So, what happens if Romney wins — would US foreign policy undergo a major change?

Hardly. On the campaign trail and in their respective platforms, there have been differences between the Democrats and the Republicans on climate change, development assistance, human rights, the role of the United Nations, global economy — a major pressing point for the Democratic platform — the importance of international treaties and law, the threat of nuclear proliferation, developments in the Middle East etc.

But campaign trails and platforms are just that — strategies to get into the White House. Platform documents are about wordsmithry; experts are hired to sell and innovate and get the candidates to put the best foot forward, in short play with and create perceptions. But when candidates reach the White House, institutions take over and actual policy conduct shows little difference in pushing the perceived or real interests of the US.

For instance, in theory, Democrats refer to the UN and other international bodies as ‘a centrepiece of international order’. They talk about the need to ‘reform international bodies and strengthen national and multilateral capabilities to advance peace, security and opportunity’. The Republicans express their wariness of increased multilateralism that could erode ‘American sovereignty’. They would want to retain the space for the US to act unilaterally.

In practice, Democrats are as quick to ignore international law requirements as the Republicans, the use of drones being a case in point. Similarly, the Obama Administration continued with President George W Bush’s policy of undermining the nuclear non-proliferation treaty to strengthen Washington’s civilian nuclear deal with New Delhi even as the Democrats’ National Platform document described the NPT as “the bedrock of international efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons”.

There is one difference though, but it is at a broader level. The Democrats have a more nuanced approach to multilateralism and, by extension, unilateralism. In the areas of climate change, global economy and a host of other multilateral regimes, Democrats show a higher regard for multilateralism because they perceive that compliance with international law and treaties in certain cases helps increase America’s security rather than undermine it.

Be that as it may, from Pakistan’s immediate and long-term perspective, it is the US policy in West and South Asia, which is central to Islamabad’s interests. Going by both the platform documents, as well as the presidential debates, especially the last one, it is difficult to see how anything would change in the event of a Romney win.

The GOP platform has this to say: “The aftermath of the last decade’s conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan has put enormous pressure on the political and military infrastructure of Pakistan, which faces both internal terrorism and external dangers. The working relationship between our two countries is a necessary, though sometimes difficult, benefit to both, and we look toward the renewal of historic ties that have frayed under the weight of international conflict.”

These lines seem to imply that Romney would try to reach out to Pakistan where Obama, a Democrat president, created a gulf between the two countries.

However, during the debate, Romney agreed with Obama’s policies on the use of drones and unilateral action where and when necessary. He also agreed that Pakistan is important (for all the wrong reasons): it has nuclear weapons and is building more; it has terrorist groups; it has the Taliban; it has a weak civilian government. Romney, therefore, agrees with Obama that the US cannot walk away from Pakistan but equally, that the US must make aid to Pakistan conditional on Pakistan’s presumably good behaviour.

Nothing new here. Both camps use veiled and not-so-veiled qualifiers in respect of Pakistan’s sovereignty. Pakistan is sovereign until America perceives a threat to its national security; when and where it does, it will act to safeguard US interests even if that runs counter to Pakistan’s sovereignty.

The Obama camp, to the extent of its campaign document, says that the US will not make permanent bases in Afghanistan even as it talks about the Strategic Partnership Agreement with Afghanistan and, behind the scenes, is exerting pressure on Kabul to agree to give bases to the US and enter into a Status of Forces Agreement with Washington.

The Romney camp has not made clear whether, if it considers the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan against the US interest, it would reverse the decision of the Obama Administration to get out of Afghanistan by 2014. Nor is there anything in the GOP document that details how Washington would convince its Nato allies were it to decide not to withdraw from Afghanistan.

In reality, if Romney were to win, the withdrawal will still take place with the US keeping 15,000 to 20,000 troops in Afghanistan. There is no way a Republican president can find troops to put on the ground. The Republican stress on overwhelming force will give way to the current Democratic reliance on new technologies and leaner, quick forces to fight the wars of the future.

Relations with Pakistan are unlikely to undergo any major change for the better, especially if there is no political reconciliation within Afghanistan. It is safe to posit that outside of the campaign mode and manifestos, US policies in the region would more or less remain unchanged. This could mean more instability because while the US as the biggest actor has the ability to influence the course of events, it is also now a victim of the fog of war its own policies have helped create in this region.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!

Published in The Express Tribune, October 25th, 2012.

Reader Comments (31)

  • gp65
    Oct 25, 2012 - 12:25AM

    “The Romney camp has not made clear whether, if it considers the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan against the US interest, it would reverse the decision of the Obama Administration to get out of Afghanistan by 2014.”

    Please listen to the Romney Obama debate on Oct 22. Romney agreed with Obama’s aproach. No unclarity at least in terms of campaign promise.

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  • sabi
    Oct 25, 2012 - 1:03AM

    If Obama wins again chances are America starts a final battel on a much larger scale.We may observe some rude shocks or blessing in disguise.Who knows

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  • Khan Jr
    Oct 25, 2012 - 1:21AM

    The writer posits that continued US presence will lead to ‘more instability’. So he apparently subscribes to the view that once the US/NATO troops leave Afghanistan we will witness an era of peace and stability. What a load of codswallop. Afghanistan will once more undergo a vicious civil war. Tens of thousands more will die and in all likelihood the country will split into two – Pakhtun and non-Pakhtun. Zones of authority. And that will bring further instability, not in the least in the Pakhtun parts of NWFP and northwestern Balochistan.

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  • Mirza
    Oct 25, 2012 - 1:51AM

    When there is no going to be any change in the US policy then why waste time, space and energy in a whole lot of nothing? Be that as it may the death of president Obama is highly exaggerated! It ain’t going to happen let us stop dreaming and learn to live with reality on the ground.

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  • yousaf
    Oct 25, 2012 - 2:21AM

    Pakistan has to understand that no country is any other country’s friend unless a country makes friends with herself

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  • Sultan
    Oct 25, 2012 - 2:46AM

    @gp65:

    US strategy on Pakistan is made at the Pentagon–Obama or Romney or even Bozo the Clown, if he became President, will just have to rubber stamp it. We are not the only country where the army holds sway over national security policies.

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  • Rashid
    Oct 25, 2012 - 4:06AM

    Anyone who has listened to the last presidential debate can plainly understand that there would be no policy change. Actually, there is no disagreement on foreign policy, the only apparent disagreement is about who implements the policy more effectively! The writer has hit the target.

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  • gp65
    Oct 25, 2012 - 4:20AM

    @Sultan: “@gp65:
    US strategy on Pakistan is made at the Pentagon–Obama or Romney or even Bozo the Clown, if he became President, will just have to rubber stamp it. We are not the only country where the army holds sway over national security policies.

    Not true. Defense secretary (similar to defense minister in parliamentary democracies) who leads Pentagon is appointed by the President. You perhaps may not remember but when a General McChrystal was fired for criticizing Obama administration policies in a magazine interview even though he apologized. Forget criticizing Obama administration directly Major Gen. Fuller was fired for criticizing Karzai. Current defense secretary is an Obama right hand man. The generals know who calls the shots – and it isn’t them.

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  • sabi
    Oct 25, 2012 - 4:33AM

    @Sultan:
    US strategy on Pakistan is made at the Pentagon
    Oh ,I thought strategy is made by American govt with president having veto power (yes or no) and implemented by pentagon.Didn’t know that!

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  • Raw is War
    Oct 25, 2012 - 5:23AM

    Obama is better.

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  • vasan
    Oct 25, 2012 - 6:16AM

    I dont know why the author laments that no change in foreign policy will happen in US esp with respect to Pakistan, if there is a change in the US presidency. Both the presidential candidates are not poles apart when it comes to their security. So no drastic change in policy. After all the same policies and modus operandi got them their first enemy OBL and many of his lietenants I wonder whether there is any change in the ground in Pakistan, whether in their policy of supporting terrorists, duplicity or denial or even in dragging their feet on NWZ operation inspite of the sacrifice of the poor little Malala.

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  • F
    Oct 25, 2012 - 8:31AM

    We all know it is everyone else’s fault.
    We can expect MORE of the same from Pakistan too.

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  • Something Clever
    Oct 25, 2012 - 8:40AM

    @Sultan:
    The Military in the US is not an authority in any way. I don’t know why Pakistanis try to compare the US and Pakistan. They’re nothing like each other in their functionality. You don’t even use the same structure as the US democratic setup beyond votes being involved. You could better see your government setup as a failed version of England’s, though their military doesn’t have anywhere near the same authority as in Pakistan, either.

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  • KRR
    Oct 25, 2012 - 9:14AM

    American policy towards Pakistan must change .. India must change .. Afghanistan must change .. the whole world must change .. all except Pakistan. What a frog in the well attitude.

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  • Foreign Leg
    Oct 25, 2012 - 10:43AM

    Republican presidents have been the ones sympathetic to India even though most Indians in India lean democratic.

    If Romney becomes president, India will benefit as there will be less rancor about outsourcing to India. The GOP also has two governors of Indian descent.

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  • Indian Wisdom
    Oct 25, 2012 - 11:50AM

    @ Ejaz Haider:
    Excellent analysis!!
    The bottom line is; we can expect “more of the same” for South Asia no matter who wins the election…………
    Agreed 100%.

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  • Abhi
    Oct 25, 2012 - 12:05PM

    I think same may be true in case of Pakistan as well, regardless it is Zardari or Imran Khan, we will see same non state actors running the most of the foreign policy.

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  • Arifq
    Oct 25, 2012 - 12:56PM

    Fundamental difference between Democrats and Republicans is Defense spending, where Democrats favor curtailment Republicans look for increase. From our perspective most important change is the emphasis of Barack Obama Democrats on dealing with the civilians government compared to GW Bush Republicans traditional policy of dealing with the military. If there is a difference it exists for the Pakistan military which has always been more comfortable with the Republicans.

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  • Sultan
    Oct 25, 2012 - 2:03PM

    @sabi:

    Now you do.

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  • Sultan
    Oct 25, 2012 - 2:05PM

    @Abhi:

    I diasgree. Imran Khan has a clear plan to get out this coal business, which is making the entire nation’s hands black.

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  • yousaf
    Oct 25, 2012 - 2:07PM

    @Raw is War::I too was in favour of Obama but after listening to their debate-talk and making a comparative analysis of their views I feel that Romney is better for Pakistan.I also feel that Romney will understand the harm drones are doing,which Obama could not realise

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  • Hunter punter
    Oct 25, 2012 - 4:31PM

    pakistan should question itself about its foreign policy and what needs to be done to be a more acceptable state in the commity of Natkions. Pakistan is a international migraine and a pariah status country. n othing will change for pakistan and it will remain the the boon-docks till it turns a ndew leaf, and banishes support for terrorists and Jihadis. Otherwise, pakistan will disaapear by the nexty presidential elections.

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  • Sultan
    Oct 25, 2012 - 7:11PM

    @gp65:

    I am sure you also believe in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy!

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  • Sultan
    Oct 25, 2012 - 7:16PM

    @Hunter punter:

    Nations have long lives, counted in hundreds of years. Humans tend to klonk out sooner. Given that you are an Indian with a life exopctancy slightly longer than a cat’s and assuming that you are in your thirties, the chances of you dying before the next election are much higher. Give up the cigarettes and get some exercise for both your body and brain!

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  • Sultan
    Oct 25, 2012 - 8:34PM

    We do not need to pay too much attention to US policy or discuss the ideology of Pakistan–it is like asking how long is a piece of string? Everyone will have a diffrent answer. The fact is that Pakistan exists and we should get on with it. We are fortunate enough to have one of the best pieces of real esate on this planet, loaded with natural resources, highest mountains, prettiest meadows, fertile plains fed by some of the mightiest rivers on this planet, the bluest seas, the prettiest beaches, the loveliest deserts, birds, animals, gems, gold, nuts, fruits, vegetables, fish, livestock, grains, rice, cotton, sugar cane, art, music, culture, history, a well-equipped and sizable army, a nuclear deterrent, an entrepreneural spirit, an army of overseas forex earners, a geostrategic position and a large population.

    How many countries on this planet can you name that have even half of that? So many nations will give an arm and a leg to get what we have but do not realize. If that is not enough to build a good life for us, only God knows what else will be? What does it matter how it came to be? What matters is it did and we got a good piece of property–think of it as a gift inheritance. All we need is to develop it and enjoy living there as Pakistanis first and everything else after that. All we are missing is education and justice for the masses; hopefully, our new aspiring politicians have a good grip on this reality and will use their best minds to evolve a strategy that takes us away from the path of war to the land of peace. It will be great to live in a new Pakistan.

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  • gp65
    Oct 25, 2012 - 8:35PM

    @Abhi: ” think same may be true in case of Pakistan as well, regardless it is Zardari or Imran Khan, we will see same non state actors running the most of the foreign policy.”

    I would tend to agree that the net results maybe identical but for vastly different reasons. In case of Zardari, he probably wants to change direction but is not competent enough to change the public mindset to empower him to implement the change. In case of Imran, I think he has shown great skill in moulding public opinion, so competence is not in question. His interviews to Indian media (Karan Thapar in particular) also indicate that he does not want to support terror emanating fro Pakistan. What makes one cynical is the actions that do not match words. Sending his party leadership as a speaker on DPC forum does not constitute engagement – as his followers try to position it – but endorsement of the DPC stance. And we know who all are in the DPC- leaders of LeT and LeJ.

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  • It Is (still) Economy Stupid
    Oct 25, 2012 - 9:07PM

    @Sultan:
    Sounds like you are having a ball in La La land. Nationalism is good but sometime one has to face bitter truth and take that med for delusion. It is not what you think it is what global village think of you matters.

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  • Sultan
    Oct 25, 2012 - 9:22PM

    @gp65:

    Karan Thapar is highly over-rated as an interviewer–Talat Hussain is a lot better. The problem in both india and Pakistan is that due to the mushrooming growth in media, even mediocre players have been able to secure key slots, especially in india. Hopefully, it will evolve over time, Thapars of the world will be weeded out, and in both india and Pakistan, we will see better quality and standards.

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  • Cautious
    Oct 26, 2012 - 7:22PM

    while the US as the biggest actor has
    the ability to influence the course of
    events, it is also now a victim of the
    fog of war its own policies have
    helped create in this region.

    I would argue that Pakistan fits this description rather nicely. The reality is that Pakistan has always held itself out at the solution to the problems in the region and everyone has concluded that your actually part of the problem — now that the bed is made your going to have to sleep in it.

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  • Sultan
    Oct 26, 2012 - 8:45PM

    @It Is (still) Economy Stupid:

    “Sounds like you are having a ball in La La land. Nationalism is good but sometime one has to face bitter truth and take that med for delusion. It is not what you think it is what global village think of you matters”

    Really? Have you seen recent polls on US popularity in the world? Do you think people living in NY or Boston or elsewhere give a hoot about what the rest of the world thinks? Why should Pakistan be any different?

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  • Realist.
    Oct 28, 2012 - 6:58PM

    Obama and Romney and are two sides of the same imperialist coin. America’s stance towards our country is not changing any time soon. Remember: Presidents don’t wield power; they draw attention away from it.Recommend

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