Thursday, November 15, 2007

Cold War Hangover in Pakistan

The "Cold War" standoff between the West and the Soviet Union effectively ended with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, but the foreign policy establishment and military infrastructure that grew up over a half-century are proving to be slow to change. This means that we still have the same dangers to our own government and economy that General Eisenhower warned us about in his farewell address (the "military-industrial complex") and a new set of dangers as our atrophied system continues to apply Cold War formulas to new and different challenges. This is strikingly apparent today with the political crisis in Pakistan.
During the Cold War period, foreign policy seemed to be easy, a by-the-numbers affair. The greatest threat was Soviet communism, so every other foreign policy or security problem, large or small, could be subjected to the same reductionist program: who's on our side, who's on their side? The roughest sort of dictators were not only tolerated but supported, installed, fought for by US troops. Anti-Americanism today in South Korea and the rest of the Pacific Rim, in Iran and the Middle East, in Chile and many other South American countries, in South Africa and beyond is a dividend from this dark, Machiavellian period, the high point of the American "empire" (empire is a bad thing, and a self-consciously imperial power is a power in decline). A post-Cold War world, with a multipolar geostrategic framework replacing the bipolar Cold War world, requires a far-reaching adaptation and transformation of the way the US conducts diplomacy and security. Among other things it represents an opportunity for the US to stand down from the dangerous and undesirable position of world policeman.
But old habits are hard to break, particularly when large sectors of the economy and the bureaucracy are dependent creatures of the old way of doing things. The Bush administration has avoided the hard work of transformation by simply finding a new bugaboo to plug in to the old Soviet role: Islamic nationalism. Dictators can still be coddled, the US can stay at the center of the global arms trade (which is worse for a community, being economically dependent on a vast prison system or on being the arms merchant to the world's violence?). The alternative is doom at the hands of the "terrorists" ("communists"). The political temptation to abuse this is too strong to resist. Any populist, any independent nationalist, any moderate socialist was a "communist." Today they are "Islamofascists."
And so we see our troglodyte, Cold War-mentality administration (the Secretary of State a Sovietologist by training) failing to smell the coffee on Pakistan. I wonder how many Americans are aware that Mrs. Bhutto is the daughter of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was hung in 1979 by General Zia-ul-Haq, another pro-US general who seized power in a military coup in 1977? Or that her mother, Nusrat Bhutto, was the head of the Pakistani People's Party? All-important historical context is lost under the weight of a too programmatic foreign policy. Pakistan is unlikely to slide into fundamentalist revolution under the more or less Westernized Bhutto faction (just as secular, just as Westernized as Musharraf). But say there was a major Islamic opening in Pakistan (or Turkey, where this is actually happening right now). It's just as likely that this movement would be a vehicle for much-needed reform as it is that it could result in an Iranian-style menace. If you want another Iran, keep on trampling the democratic process in Pakistan. Even Iran would start evolving away from Islamic dictatorship more easily without the reactionary pressures of conflict with the US (the same dynamic holds today in Cuba). People won't embrace retro religious fundamentalism for long, if they are just given their liberty. Algeria might have even worked through this if the democratic process was respected when that country elected an Islamic government, only to have the will of the people thwarted. We cannot be motivated by fear forever. The positive path is faith in human nature.

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