Washington, DC — the cornucopia of political games and the hub of world politics — poses charm for power seekers, media, politicians and lobbyists. While I spent quite some time in the Capitol, closely observing these eager beavers in power corridors, I learnt about their roles in changing the course of political events. Also, I was eager to know how Pakistani diplomats and lobbyists create discussions on the floor of Congress to win votes in their favour.
One of the most difficult conundrums for Pakistan on the Hill is its lack of representation. Even though Pakistan’s lobbyists in the past launched an intense campaign on Capitol Hill to foster bilateral relationships, mistrust between the two countries continues to rise. At the time when the mainstream media is so focused on the deteriorating relationship between the United States (US) and Pakistan, lobbyists tend to mend fences on both sides.
Despite the fact that Pakistan’s spending on lobbying is actually low compared with other countries — former Pakistani lobbyists believe that the bilateral relationship is primarily a function of policy than personalities — the Pakistani media indicated that the Pakistan embassy in Washington, DC spends a huge amount of money compared with that spent by the other 121 foreign missions, which the country maintains throughout the world. These media reports lamented that despite spending so much money, relations between the two countries are still in an abyss.
On the other side, the Pakistani community in the US believes that Pakistan has not tapped into grassroots activism as fervently as other countries have done, such as India, Israel and Saudi Arabia. In comparison with the Indian and Israeli diaspora, the Pakistani diaspora voices its support based on party identification with the government in power, much to the detriment of a united Pakistani front. The Pakistani diaspora consists of either the blue-collar working class, or filthy rich businessmen. What is lacking, unlike in the Indian diaspora, is a concrete educated middle class.
Based on my countless interactions with fellow Pakistanis, particularly the educated class, a majority of Pakistanis are cynical about the efforts of Pakistani lobbyists. They believe that despite spending millions on lobbying, Pakistan has not established a positive image in the US. It is a general impression among many Pakistanis residing in the US that lobbyists hired to promote the image of Pakistan have actually been working to promote political personalities, not the country. It is a secret to no one that the lobbying expenses incurred by the Pakistani government were actually used to promote and lobby for former presidents, including President Musharraf and President Zardari during their respective eras. The slogan ‘Pakistan First’ turned into something more like ‘Political Personality First’ when it came to the lobbying for Pakistan on the Hill. Ironically, the poor people of Pakistan pay the price for such personal publicity stunts because all the money is spent from the national exchequer.
Since this is an extremely unusual and difficult lobbying environment for Pakistan, the new Pakistani government has still not decided to give this intriguing and challenging role to any firm yet. This is obviously a low point in bilateral relations, and lobbyists working for Pakistan are encountering unusual questioning and, sometimes, outright hostility when they are on the Hill. The scepticism regarding whether or not Pakistan is a reliable partner colours all other aspects of bilateral relations.
According to some experts associated with lobbying firms, among other challenges, at times of economic stress in the US, foreign aid is generally the ‘lowest hanging fruit’ for congressional cuts. But on top of the economic crunch, the US also has severe political strains.
To convince Congress, the administration and the public that Pakistan is the principal victim of terrorism in the world today, the country will have to create strong diplomatic strategies.
According to former lobbyists, in 2011, the previous Pakistani government spent $900,000 a year on lobbying, which was substantially below the amount spent during the Musharraf era. For example, towards the end of the Musharraf era, Pakistan was spending $1,200,000 on one lobbying firm, and another $100,000 a month on a second firm, totalling $2.5 million.
As I had mentioned at the beginning of this piece, comparatively, Pakistan’s spending on its lobbying is way less than that of other countries. Here are some examples of other countries’ spending on lobbying on Capitol Hill: India spends $1.4 million on lobbying in the US, whereas Israel (AIPAC) is spending almost $3 million for the same purpose. Similarly, the United Arab Emirates spent $10.9 million in 2008 for lobbying in Washington, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group. It was followed by Britain, which spent $6.1 million, and Japan, which paid out $4.2 million for lobbying purposes.
I am not suggesting that Pakistan should follow this course, because the country cannot afford to run this marathon. However, at a small fraction of that price, lobbyists might rally persons from the Pakistani-American community and deploy grassroots advocacy in efforts to promote a more nuanced picture of Pakistan in the US.
The Pakistani lobby in conjunction with the Pakistani diaspora should serve as catalysts for the purpose of educating, informing and benefiting the US-Pakistani bilateral relationship. The domestic situation in Pakistan must be strengthened in the form of the state enhancing job security, state security and food security, embedded in economic development, to best improve US-Pakistan bilateral relations.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 14th, 2014.