As Mitt Romney’s square jaw and business credentials come closer to snaring the Republican nomination, Pakistanis are again hoping for a gentler Washington. An unimpressive man in a pool of more obvious disasters, Romney represents an idea that should have been thrown out with the elder George Bush in 1992: that Republican presidents have been better for Pakistan.
Shiny, shapeless Romney comforts those who still remember 2008, when the last presidential challenger promised more drone attacks and raiding the country if there were a chance to kill Osama. He did both and looked the other way during more, with contractors murdering our citizens and Nato strikes killing our soldiers. With Pakistan reeling after four years of Obama, a president tagged with being weak in almost every facet of foreign policy except ours, we miss the older, happier days of Republicans in the White Houses.
For instance, in 1973, Richard Nixon declared that “the integrity of Pakistan is the cornerstone of American foreign policy”. Such a statement today might only be made for Canada or Israel (and England if Tony Blair were still in office, ever-ready to sacrifice his people for Dick Cheney). Also who doesn’t remember Republican Ronald Reagan and the endless money and Stinger missiles that he gave to us and which we passed on to our favourite mujahideen in Afghanistan during the 1980s.
We often forget that for both Nixon and Reagan, bigger prizes — aligning with the Chinese, defeating the Soviets — were perhaps more important than any love from the Pakistanis. But it’s still easy to contrast their support with, say, Democrat Jimmy Carter, who scaled back ties with Pakistan when the American Embassy was burned down in Islamabad in 1979. Or with Bill Clinton, whose six-hour visit to the capital in 2000 included a lecture on Kashmir and refusing to be photographed shaking hands with Pervez Musharraf. Humiliating as that was, it’s six hours more than whatever time another Democrat, the current US president, has spent on our soil.
But this conclusion, that the reds have been better for our interests than the blues, has been made redundant by two broader trends. The first is the Bush administration’s savage and stupid response to 9/11. Steered by men that were almost fanatically neoconservative, Bush’s foreign policy became coloured by the virulent unilateralism, by binary terms of good and evil. And as the war in Afghanistan progressed, the theatre of war nightmarishly shifted to our own northwest. The American policymaker’s perspective of Pakistan is more negative today than it ever has been, regardless of party affiliation.
The second is that America itself has changed, and not just following 9/11. It has been changing for a long time. Over the past half-century, Republican vote-getting strategies in the US’s heartland have been cynical exercises in fear, race, and resentment. The resulting rise of an aspirational middle class in America, increasingly white, intolerant, and inward-looking, has made electoral candidates drift even further right. This is best explained by the Tea Party, an assortment of out-of-control libertarians and social conservatives against everything except guns, and a source of unending pain for the saner Republican establishment.
A combination of these two factors explains how the Grand Old Party has let itself become the God & Oil Party, its leaders drab and consciously myopic. Romney finds Pakistanis ‘comfortable’ with drone strikes. Newt Gingrich warns of the ‘extremists’ within reach of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Rick Perry talks incoherently of making friends with India in relation to ‘the Pakistani country’. These are not, with the possible exception of Perry (who is no longer in the race), stupid men. They cater to an audience that views Pakistan as a bag of warheads that undefined radicals might snatch up at any second, and little else.
The way out, then, lies not with parties changing in the White House but with us, removing our biases that are intellectually lazy and viewing our relation to other countries’ interests afresh. And not just with the GOP in America, but with our neighbours, friends, and rivals. Maybe our own policymakers should also be inspired towards acting pragmatically towards the changing world around them, rather than taking each day as it comes. A Democratic president has been a tragedy for Pakistan. A Republican America would be worse.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 8th, 2012.