|Tuesday, October 27, 2009
We know that Pakistanis are not alone in the world, when it comes to being more than a little miffed about how their country is treated by the United States. The hullabaloo over why there is so much anti-Americanism in Pakistan, however, is a bit mystifying. The implicit insistence that high levels of anti-Americanism in Pakistan are unacceptable seems to reek of hubris. US officials, both bureaucrats (like Ambassador Ann Paterson) and politicians (like Congressman Howard Berman) have grown increasingly testy in recent weeks, trying to perfume the world-famous love letter of the American people to Pakistan (formerly known as the Kerry Lugar Bill). If the incredulity of Americans trying to convince Pakistanis that their country is Uncle Sam’s little love-muffin seems a little ridiculous, it’s because it is. Only committed Orientalists would insist that a country of nearly 180 million be starry-eyed about America’s thus-far unproven, newfound wisdom about Pakistani democracy. Proconsul Dick Holbrook should get over it. And so should Howie Berman. Pakistanis aren’t the only ones that don’t trust the US government.
Nevertheless, Pakistan would be best served by some introspection on the whole anti-American routine. The sad truth is that “Go America Go” and anti-American narrative in Pakistan is a microcosm of the quality and texture of public discourse in Pakistan–irrational, without evidence, and oftentimes, downright malicious and ill-intentioned.
It seems Pakistani mistrust of the United States is rooted in the US drone strikes to take out Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders hiding out in Pakistani territory. That is understandable, given the high number of innocent Pakistanis killed by these strikes, and the brazen absence of any contrition or remorse on the part of the US government. but anti-Americanism has always existed among some segments in Pakistan, but it has never been quite so universal, or quite so pronounced, as it has been in the last two months.
No doubt, Pakistanis should be proud to be proud, and should reserve the right to like or dislike countries on the basis of how they perceive those countries treat Pakistan. However Pakistanis should also be smart while they’re being proud. If anti-American rhetoric is masking other more important and more urgent problems–dare we say, Pakistani problems–then the rhetoric is poisonous and need to be shunned.
Anti-Americanism in Pakistan has two dimensions, in particular, that make it a rather poisonous instrument in the public discourse. The first is that anti-Americanism is itself marked by incompetence, and in turn masks Pakistani incompetence. The second is that anti-Americanism easily displaces responsibility for Pakistani problems, from Pakistan’s leaders, to the abstraction of the American beast. In short, the second dimension is about accountability, and how anti-Americanism prevents such accountability.
Two of the most recent big-ticket stories in the country amply demonstrate the competence problem in Pakistan’s anti-American odyssey. The Blackwater controversy and the Kerry Lugar Bill both demonstrated the failure of Pakistani public discourse to produce viable and defensible positions, and thereby losing the opportunity to engage audiences in the United States that might actually be amenable to Pakistanis’ concerns, and who might have actually enabled a true dialogue between Pakistanis and Americans at large.
In the case of the Blackwater controversy, the national public discourse was aimed at a demonisation of the United States, rather than a serious examination of what was actually taking place in terms of the presence of private US security contractors in Pakistan. The controversy failed to ever truly define, what, if any, laws were broken, or, indeed, what moral or ethical problem the presence of private security contractors presented for Pakistan.
Is there a fair public policy debate to be had in Pakistan, on the legitimacy and legality of private security contractors from another country working in Pakistan? Most definitely. But the manner in which the issue has been discussed thus far has done two things. First, it has turned off and alienated rational Pakistanis who seek evidence before unleashing nationalist tirades against another country. Second, it has largely de-legitimised the entire subject matter altogether–once a topic is coloured with an irrational taint, it is difficult to have a substantive discussion about it, even if the data and evidence to conduct the discussion is in place.
With this being the ambient quality of Pakistani national discourse, it should not surprise anyone that Pakistanis collectively adopt anti-Americanism as an instrument of debate. Engaging in a serious and substantive debate about the role of non-state actors in Pakistan would require a basic level of effort invested in understanding the dimensions of government and the extent to which the state is receding. Blaming Americans for wanting to turn Islamabad into Baghdad, on the other hand, is both a sexier hook for dining room conversation, and perhaps more importantly, an easy way out for those responsible for running the country.
Which brings us to the second dimension of anti-Americanism: the impunity that it enables Pakistani leaders to operate with. Having Uncle Sam to beat with a baseball bat every time Pakistani leaders need a scapegoat, is ultra-convenient. Even this government, which is otherwise so deeply immersed in building all kinds of bridges with the US, keeps Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin close at hand to deliver verbal smack-downs about the price Pakistan is paying in the war on terror, and its urgent and immediate need for a US federal bailout. The entire range of political parties, including the military, have banked on anti-Americanism, not because of hatred for America, but because any deconstruction of Pakistan’s problems would illustrate how deeply culpable Pakistan’s leaders–political and military–have been, and how completely disconnected from most of Pakistan’s domestic problems America truly is.
Pakistan’s fiscal crunch is a function of spending too much money on the wrong things (war and debt-servicing), and not extracting enough money from the right people (feudal land owners, and desi rogue speculators of the Karachi Stock Exchange). Pakistan’s mosque and madrasa problem is a function of leaving the job of faith leadership to the most underprivileged, and sending all the nice-smelling lucky kids to Wisconsin, Waterloo, Worcester and Wollongong. Pakistan’s education problem is a function of the use of teachers’ jobs as political spoils. Pakistan’s healthcare problem is a function of not treating doctors with the respect and dignity they deserve, and treating patients like cattle. Pakistan’s most serious problems are not the products of America’s desire to devour Pakistani sovereignty. They are a product of Pakistani sovereignty not knowing what to do with itself, and how and why. Hating on America won’t solve that problem.
The writer advises governments, donors and NGOs on public policy. He can be reached through his website www.mosharrafzaidi.com (The News)