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America’s Thorniest Foreign Policy Challenge

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During the last debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney, (transcript), I was listening for one issue above all others: Pakistan. The moderator did ask one question concerning Pakistan, which Romney answered at length. This is his most pertinent statement:

But Pakistan is important to the region, to the world and to us, because Pakistan has 100 nuclear warheads, and they’re rushing to build a lot more. They’ll have more than Great Britain sometime in the – in the relatively near future. They also have the Haqqani network and – and the Taliban existent within their country. And so a – a Pakistan that falls apart, becomes a failed state would be of extraordinary danger to Afghanistan and us. And so we’re going to have to remain helpful in encouraging Pakistan to move towards a – a more stable government and – and rebuild a relationship with us. And that means that – that – that our aid that we provide to Pakistan is going to have to be conditioned upon certain benchmarks being met.

The moderator then turned to the president, who tap-danced around the question and avoided answering it at all. The moderator asked a second question about Pakistan, and again the president avoided giving an answer. In both instances, President Obama spoke in generalities but gave very little detail. Those who have watched the debates, and Obama’s speeches over the years, know that he is usually not afraid to give details; indeed, his willingness to give the details of his plans (as compared to the reluctance of his opponent to offer them) was one of the main differences I noticed between Obama and McCain in the 2008 presidential race, and the difference is even more pronounced now, given that Romney says (1) he’ll “repeal and replace Obamacare” but never gives details as to what he’ll replace it with; (2) he’ll cut spending to match his much-ballyhooed tax cuts, but says very little about what he’d cut; and (3) he’ll fix the economy by slashing regulations and adding 12M jobs, but (except for massive tax cuts, minimizing regulation, and ending Obamacare), never says exactly how he’d do that.

In other words, Mitt Romney’s track record of revealing details on how he’d accomplish his goals has been sparse at best, whereas President Obama has nearly always been fairly forthcoming with such details. So why the glaring (at least to me) difference in the level of detail concerning America’s policy towards Pakistan? Maybe it’s because Obama understands how one misspoken word from him on this matter could light the fuse that would light Pakistan on fire and put her on a road that can lead only to great tragedy.

First, we need to understand the very real threat that Pakistan poses to world peace; much more so, in fact, than Iran ever did. Pakistan is a Sunni Muslim country that (as Romney pointed out) has 100+ nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, Pakistan also has a relatively weak and wildly unpopular government, and the Pakistani government’s alliance with America has made it all the more unpopular. According to Mother Jones magazine, the Obama administration is well aware of the situation:

At the heart of this acerbic relationship, however, is Pakistan’s arsenal of 110 nuclear bombs which, if the country were to disintegrate, could fall into the hands of Islamist militants, possibly from inside its own security establishment. As Barack Obama confided to his aides, this remains his worst foreign-policy nightmare, despite the decision of the US Army to train a commando unit to retrieve Pakistan’s nukes, should extremists seize some of them or materials to produce a “dirty bomb” themselves. 

Pakistan’s military high command fears the Pentagon’s contingency plans to seize its nukes. Following the clandestine strike by US SEALs that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad in May 2011, it loaded elements of its nuclear arsenal onto trucks, which rumbled around the country to frustrate any possible American attempt to grab its most prized possessions. When Senator John Kerry arrived in Islamabad to calm frayed nerves following Bin Laden’s assassination, high Pakistani officials insisted on a written US promise not to raid their nuclear arsenal. He snubbed the demand.

Nuclear weapons. On trucks. In a third-world country. With a wildly unpopular government. And a population that largely hates America and has largely neither heard of nor cares about 9/11 or why we wanted so badly to kill Osama bin Laden and to destroy al-Qaeda. Add to that particularly dangerous mix the drone strikes that the Obama administration has used to decimate the al-Qaeda leadership, but at the cost of many innocent Pakistani dead. These drone strikes are quite popular among most Americans; after all, we’re getting the bad guys without putting our own military at risk, but America’s use of drones that have killed innocent Pakistani men, women, and children in sovereign Pakistani territory has made us all the more hated in the eyes of the people of the nuclear-armed Pakistani nation. The prospect of driving Pakistan into the arms of extremists is something that American politicians, whether Democratic or Republican, want desperately to avoid. As the reference above points out, a senior Pakistan military officer recently stated, “We developed all these nukes to use against India. Now they turn out to be very useful in dealing with the US.”

I’ve stated for some time that the real reason we’re still in Afghanistan is to help stabilize Pakistan. I still maintain that this is the Obama administration’s primary reason for doing so, and Obama’s “worst nightmare” seems to support my contention. That said, the Obama administration’s policy of using drones in Pakistani territory may have the unintended consequence of forcing Pakistan into an alliance with Islamic extremists who would dearly love to get their hands on a transportable nuclear weapon. For all his foreign policy successes, I believe that Obama’s profligate use of drones in Pakistan may prove to be a serious, even a grave, mistake.

One can just imagine what the public reaction would have been had Obama pointed out any of this during the foreign policy debate. Mitt Romney had the opportunity to play to the crowd by saying what he would do. But Romney showed his rank ignorance of the art of diplomacy by stating that any aid to Pakistan would be conditional on their efforts to remake their society as he sees fit.

President Obama has no such luxury to speak on Pakistan at length, for he knows full well how critical it is to prop up the current government in Islamabad. Whatever he may say for public consumption, he knows that the greatest security threat facing America is not Iran or Russia or China, but Pakistan.

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About Glenn Contrarian

White. Male. Raised in the deepest of the Deep South. Retired Navy. Strong Christian. Proud Liberal. Thus, Contrarian!
  • John Lake

    Obama and Romney at this point have agreed in the most part to the Obama administration position on foreign policy. That agreement was predicted prior to debate number three, and the prediction was undeniably accurate. The one significant difference in the foreign policies was the matter of “nation building.” Romney would continue the Bush/Cheney nation building that failed in Iraq, and is failing in Afghanistan. Bush and Cheney had a great deal invested in nation building in those regions. The idea of convincing devoutly religious Muslims that there culture, their government, and their religion were all inferior to aspects that we would impose seemed logical to Bush and his cohorts. In fact, as soon as the American presence is reduced in these regions, the population restores the previous Islamic principles. We might also consider the 100,000 lives lost in our attempts to “democratize” the Iraqis.
    Mitt Romney failing to learn from past mistakes would impose nation building on Pakistan. Obama clearly and repeatedly stated that “nation building” would be better done right here in America; meaning infrastructure, education, and so forth.
    Pakistan is likely to be a major thorn in our sides in coming years, but conquering Pakistan is not the solution. Diplomacy and the matter of satisfying demands in exchange for American aide are the solution, and beyond the “nation building” Romney seeks, both candidates agree to that.
    We see the people of Pakistan peacefully demonstrating about the deaths caused by our drones, and we seem to disregard it. This is a politically motivated blindness and will hopefully change after the November elections.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    No, I don’t think that diplomacy and American aid to Pakistan is enough of a solution to really matter. Right now, Pakistan is focused on America, on what we’re doing to their people with our drones. We could publicly kiss their asses and send them 100 times as much money as we’re giving them now, but they’d still rightly hate us for continuing to kill their people in their country.

    If I were Obama, I’d do my level best to (1) immediately stop all drone strikes and military transports in Pakistan, and (2) find a way to redirect the attention of the Pakistani people in another direction, preferably by making them think that the newest and most terrible threat du jour to Pakistan is coming from Iran. By doing so, we’d lessen the chances that Pakistan would align more closely with extremists and do something really stupid against America with one or more of their nukes…and we’d get Iran to publicly forget all about Zionist Israel and the Great Satan America because all of a sudden they’ve got a nuclear-armed Sunni country threatening them. Yes, this might result in great and tragic loss of life on one or both sides…but if we are careful, the American people – which is Obama’s first priority – would be under much less of a threat.

    If there’s a threat to America, IMO it’s always far preferable to get somebody else to be an unknowing proxy to remove said threat.

  • John Lake

    The use of drone strikes in Pakistan seems more of an issue to us in America than it does to the population of Pakistan. We have killed 100s, but the governed there still speak well of us. Drone use saves American lives, and dollars as the President points out. Could it be the pilots of these remotely controlled vehicles that are to blame, or the lack of ground based reconnaissance that is to blame? It is obvious that the danger to civilians must be eliminated. Continued drone use without added caution could produce terrible consequences.
    You make an interesting suggestion that we should “make them think… that the threat is from Iran” this aspect of foreign policy seems hardly ever mentioned. Propaganda is a powerful tool, and may account for the still (it would appear) good will the Pakistani’s feel toward us.
    The Pakistani government is not as solid as we might believe. Given the opportunity, some Pakistani statesmen could succumb to the temptation to grab hold of our support money, and head for the border. The question of which border it may be arises.
    With the nuclear capacity of Pakistan, we should be concerned and watchful. I hope we are. If Pakistan terrorists were to gain control of that government, it would alter the global playing field considerably. Our Secretary of State has had on the job training, and now can provide substantial input. You may be right on track to say that our thorniest foreign policy challenge is from Pakistan.

  • Igor

    Very good. I’ve thought ever since 9/11/2001 that our greatest danger in the middle east would revolve around Pakistan. It was part of the failure of Bush/Cheney that they made concessions to Pakistan to prosecute an overblown war against Afghanistan.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    John –

    The use of drone strikes in Pakistan seems more of an issue to us in America than it does to the population of Pakistan. We have killed 100s, but the governed there still speak well of us.

    Actually, no, the people there are outraged by our drone strikes – we just don’t hear about it through our American MSM.

  • John Lake

    The video you link is relevant. The people of Pakistan insist that there will be no peace until the drone attacks end. We shouldn’t take this lightly because of their peaceful way of demonstrating. As was pointed out, the London-based nonprofit Bureau of Investigative Journalism, has estimated that between 2500 and 3500 deaths have been caused by the pilotless aircraft; 500 to 900 of them, civilians.

  • Deano

    The situation in Pakistan is not one that lends itself to simplisitic solutions, neither is it all about the United States.

    Pakistan is a regional power – more to the point it is a nuclear regional power with an intense rivalry and ongoing dispute with India, another nuclear geo-political rival.

    This aspect, far more than the transitory US involvement, is the driver of Pakistan’s political activities. When push comes to shove, Pakistan knows that American involvement in Afghanistan will eventually dissipate and Pakistan’s role as the predominant influencer will resume.

    What matters to Pakistan is how their inter-regional rivalries will play out. The US is a player but to assume this is all about keeping the US influence in play is a mistake.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Deano –

    Problem is, with our continuing involvement – killing innocent Pakistanis on Pakistani soil – this allows politicians there to use America as an excuse, just as al-Qaeda did. Al-Qaeda’s second-in-command – Zawahiri, I think it was at the time – said to keep up the fight against the Zionists and the Great Satan (Israel and America), but do not forget that the real enemy are the apostate Shi’a – Iran (and now Iraq, thanks to Bush).

    The Iranians know this, too, and it’s because of Pakistan that they will have nukes sooner or later. America and Israel are just the excuses, the political fodder for the people, but nuclear-armed Pakistan is the reason, just as India was the main reason that Pakistan insisted on getting nukes.

    Remember, Deano, that religion plays a much deeper role in the Middle East than it ever has to America (or in Europe since before the Enlightenment).

    The main danger to America, though, is if the Pakistani government falls, and the new cash-strapped government (whoever might be controlling it) decides to sell a nuke to extremists. That in and of itself is why we’re sending hundreds of millions of dollars every year to prop up the Pakistani regime – it’s essentially ransom for the Pakistanis to keep sole custody of their nukes.

  • Igor

    IIRC, it was the Pakistani AQ Kahn who sold nuke technology to Iran.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Igor –

    Pakistan did sell Iran some used centrifuges, but that’s it – and centrifuges are required not just for nuclear weapons but also for nuclear fuel. The only time that traces of weapons-grade uranium were found were on those imported centrifuges, and the Pakistani scientists who were aiding the UN in the inspection verified that the traces came from their own program and not Iran’s.

    That said, though Iran and Pakistan sometimes cooperate, relations have been strained ever since the fundamentalist Sunni Taliban took over in Afghanistan in the 1990’s. Fortunately, the rivalry between the two is somewhat lessened since they concentrate on two different spheres of influence:

    Relations between Iran and Pakistan improved after the removal of the Taliban in 2002, but regional rivalry continues. Sunni-majority Pakistan sides with fellow Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia in its competition with Shiite majority Iran for influence across the broader Islamic world, although Pakistan is far less ideological than either country, and is more concerned with influence in Central Asia rather than in the Middle East. Iran considers northern and western Afghanistan as its sphere of influence since its population is Persian Dari speaking. Pakistan considers southern and eastern Afghanistan as its sphere of influence since it is Pashto and Baloch speaking like the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Pakistani Baluchistan, respectively. Pakistan expressed concern over India’s plan to build a highway linking the southern Afghanistan city of Kandahar to Zahidan, since it will reduce Afghanistan’s dependence on Pakistan to the benefit of Iran.

  • Igor

    The Pakistani AQ Khan is an international criminal nuclear secrets dealer. He pays people to steal nuke secrets from the USA, Russia, France, England, etc. He sells to anyone who offers enough. He claims to be a scientist, but he probably bought his degree, as many Pakis have. He’s a hero in Pakistan for bringing them nuke capability, but he is held in house arrest to appease the international criminal warrants issued against him.

    Thus, Pakistan itself is an international nuclear arms dealer in violation of several non-proliferation treaties.

    When Obama sent troops into Pakistan to kill Osama Bin Laden we would have done better to kill AQ Khan who, by virtue of his nuclear resources, is a bigger threat to world peace.