Dancing on the edge

I am glad Pakistan has finally got a foreign Minister

Touqir Hussain November 10, 2017
The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct faculty at Georgetown University and Maxwell School of Public Affairs Syracuse University

I am glad Pakistan has finally got a foreign Minister. And it is Khawaja Asif, an honorable man and a smart and seasoned politician. A technocrat foreign minister or someone playing that role may work in an authoritarian or ideological state where foreign policies are often fixed and unchanging, following the party lines, and public opinion is not a factor. But it is not a good idea in a democratic system. Khawaja Asif’s appointment as the foreign minister is thus doubly welcome. But there is a problem, if I may say.

A country’s foreign policy is largely an extension of domestic policy which in turn is linked to its body politic, especially its power balances and interests of the ruling establishment. In a democracy all these are organically connected in a dynamic relationship with the public opinion that is presumed to reflect the will of the people. Whether it does or not, no government can afford to ignore public opinion. Policies should have or appear to have domestic political support.

The job of a good politician is to successfully navigate between policy and politics. That is what the political process is all about. While on the whole Khawaja Asif has done a reasonably good job I am afraid in the area of US-Pakistan relations he needs to tread carefully.

US-Pakistan relations evoke strong public reactions on both sides. In both countries the relationship has been agitating the public for quite some time particularly since the war on terrorism and Afghanistan war began. America has its complaints, and Pakistan its own but the theme is the same: each has found the other as an unreliable ally.

Politicians in both countries, especially in the US, often get overwhelmed by politics trumping the policy. Strong words are spoken that test the dignity and patience of the other side. President Trump’s speech of August 21 was indeed insulting to Pakistan. Nations are like individuals. You convey a message in an abusive manner and they end up focusing on the insult and ignoring the message. Pakistan did no different.

The media, public and the leadership unleashed a barrage of grievance at the US insensitivity to all the sacrifices and cooperation Pakistan has given in the war on terrorism and the Afghanistan war. But Washington remained unmoved. It wanted to talk about what Pakistan had not done. And that was Taliban, and the militant groups that threaten India. That is what affected US interests. And they felt Pakistan’s rhetoric about its sacrifices and losses which they do not deny was an attempt to change the conversation.

Khwaja Asif visited Washington from Oct 3 to 6. On Pakistan’s part he managed to convey to Washington that it valued the relationship with the US and wanted to work with it to the mutual interests of the two countries. But he also made some statements highly critical of American policies both past and present. Perhaps conscious of the fact that he was a politician and represented a democratically elected civilian government whose voice needed to be strengthened his hosts swallowed his criticism, specially as they may have realized Pakistan was genuinely upset about the Trump remarks. If they retaliated they did so in private not in public.

Khwaja Asif was dancing on the edge but survived. He thought he could continue as it had not hurt the relationship; rather the visit to Washington had gone well at least judging from the Pakistani public’s acclamation of his forceful defense of the country’s interests. As if carried away he continued with this criticism on his return to Islamabad. His media comments and remarks in the Senate are a case in point.

Clearly the politics was taking over. And what is more the line between his criticism and anti-Americanism was getting blurred. Pakistan has no doubt suffered enormously from the spillover of the Afghanistan war and earlier Jihad of 80s. Pakistan’s political climate has been greatly influenced not just by these two conflicts but also by the war on terrorism, not to mention the growing US-India relations and the rising Indian hostility between which there is obviously a connection.

A nation under siege had to search for answers. When the suffering is colossal it is too painful to acknowledge one’s own contribution to it. So America provided a convenient answer, for some legitimate though exaggerated reasons. And it served another purpose: it was a good issue over which to fight many internal political battles. What better way to enhance your case but by becoming a sponsor of public sentiments against America that had come to embrace strong emotions of nationalism, Islamic surge, and the sense of insecurity and fear of isolation that was overshadowing the national purpose among sections of population. And what better institution to do that but the army that was fighting serious challenges of internal and external security. So in the civil military rivalry was the civilian government going to be left behind specially in an election year and with Pakistan in the grip of an internal political crisis?

The temptation was too much and Khawaja Asif found it irresistible. And that is not good for the US Pakistan relationship. His remarks about Viet Nam and about the Generals may be true but not accurate. And pinning all the blame for the rise of jihadists on the ‘80s Afghanistan war was not even true.

Even if his arguments were valid a foreign minister should not be making them except when the relationship has already become adversarial. We have not reached that stage yet and I am sure Pakistan is interested in improving the ties. So it should keep in mind Superpowers do not take criticism easily specially when led by a leader who is so self-righteous and so thin skinned, and unpredictable.

Pakistan has a strong case for being a valuable partner in meeting many of the shared challenges of the two countries which neither can solve alone. Right now their objectives, policies and interests are minimally aligned. They need to widen the convergence. Where divergence remains Pakistan needs to find good arguments and explain its position to Washington in quiet diplomacy. It might work. But what will certainly not work is the continued negative rhetoric or arguments that Americans find repetitive or irrelevant. Given the emerging geopolitics the relationship will never return to its glory days but there remains room for improvement.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 10th, 2017.

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