US has a Blinkered Vision of South Asia

Gulf News, March 23 , 2005

The US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is sometimes described as a foreign policy visionary. She reportedly has the vision of a democratic Middle East, non-nuclear Iran and North Korea and a world order based on US primacy. But during her tour of South Asia last week, Rice indicated that the United States does not have any clue of how to deal with this nuclear armed region differently than in the past.

During her trip, Rice spoke of America’s friendship with India and its alliance with Pakistan. The United States is apparently offering fighter jets for sale to both countries while encouraging their peace process.

In Rice’s view, Pakistan has already made progress in instituting democratic reforms. The United States trusts the country’s unelected President General Pervez Musharraf, who took power in a military coup and refuses to keep his promise of giving up his military uniform, to hold free and fair elections in 2007.

Washington would like more Pakistani help in dealing with Dr A.Q. Khan’s nuclear proliferation network, but will settle for the help Musharraf has so far given. All in all, Rice appears happy with the status quo in South Asia.

News reports of the US Secretary of State’s visit to Pakistan showed similarities between US attitudes towards South Asia during the 1980s and now. Indeed some of Rice’s statements could have been cut and pasted from remarks made by President Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State George Schultz during a tour of the region, two decades earlier.

Just as Schultz used to praise General Zia ul Haq for his courage in supporting the Afghan Mujahideen against the Soviet Union, Rice praised “the courage of the Pakistani people and the armed forces in the fight against terrorism.”

In 1985, the United States had accepted Zia ul Haq’s holding of partyless elections and the creation of a weak civilian government as steps towards democracy.

This time around, too, the United States is kicking the can down the road by accepting to wait for elections in 2007.

Given the track record of Pakistan’s military leadership, there is no guarantee that the 2007 election will be genuinely free and fair and that Musharraf would be willing to contest the poll as an equal of someone else.

Most Pakistanis expect another manipulated election, with intelligence services pre-screening candidates and forcing influential local politicians into and out of political alliances.

Although Rice did not speak on the subject during her visit, it is more or less certain that the United States is willing to sell F-16 fighter aircraft to Pakistan another repetition of the past pattern.

Pakistan’s military regimes have traditionally seen America’s alliance with Pakistan through the prism of military sales and the United States has always obliged. American arms are “toys for the boys”, a measure of the ruling general’s ability to get a pay off for Pakistan’s alliance with the United States. But historically, US military sales to Pakistan have discouraged its generals from seeking rapprochement with India while increasing Indian antagonism towards Pakistan.

If the United States seeks to encourage the peace process between the two nuclear armed neighbours, as Rice claimed, then it should be encouraging both India and Pakistan to undertake arms reduction and disarmament talks.

Hardly conducive

Selling expensive fighter jets to Pakistan, with 33 per cent of its population living below the poverty line and another 24 per cent living barely above it, is hardly conducive to helping Pakistan’s leadership identify its priorities.

It is interesting that soon after Rice’s departure from South Asia, Pakistan tested its nuclear capable missile and Pakistan’s Commerce Minister virtually backed out of including India in normal trade relations (also known as MFN).

With an American administration claiming to reshape the world, at least some South Asians expected a new US approach to their region as well.

In that respect, Rice’s visit has been disappointing. She would have done better if she had broken from the past. Instead of offering F-16s to Pakistan and India, the US should provide only economic assistance.

Instead of accepting vague assurances of gradual change in Pakistan, specific benchmarks for transition to democracy should be laid down.

Musharraf should be asked to give up his military rank. Elections under an independent Election Commission should be sought. The role of intelligence services in manipulating Pakistani politics should be noted and its end demanded.

What of the American concern that Musharraf might stop cooperating in the war against terrorism if he is not given a free pass on democracy and other issues?

Similar delusions have prevented visionary American initiatives towards South Asia in the past.

If Musharraf is the good guy Rice describes him to be, why would he stop fighting terrorism, which must be fought for Pakistan’s sake and not just America’s.

If, however, his heart were not in fighting terrorism how long before the American pay-offs start falling short of his expectations?

Camouflaging Corruption

Gulf News, March 16 , 2005

After almost two decades of describing corruption as the reason for most of the Third World’s problems, intellectuals in the West are beginning to question the wisdom of that argument.

In a significant article in The Washington Post, Moises Naim wrote, “Today the war on corruption is undermining democracy, helping the wrong leaders get elected and distracting societies from facing urgent problems.”

Naim, who is the editor of Foreign Policy argued that the obsession with eliminating corruption “crowds out the debate on other crucial problems”.

According to Naim, “Corruption has too easily become the universal diagnosis for a nation’s ills. If we could only curtail the culture of graft and greed, we are told, many other intractable problems would easily be solved. But although it is true that corruption can be crippling, putting an end to the bribes, kickbacks and payoffs will not necessarily solve any of the deeper problems that afflict societies. In fact, this false belief can make it harder, if not impossible, to rally public support for other indispensable public efforts.”

Naim points out that flaws in a country’s educational system and stagnating economies do not receive the same attention as corruption. “These problems may be aggravated by corruption, but they are created by conditions that often have little to do with the behaviour of dishonest government officials.”

The “worst collateral damage” of a fixation with corruption, according to Naim, “is the political instability it can create. Electorates already have many reasons to be disappointed with their elected officials. The corruption curse feeds people’s unrealistic expectations about what it would take to improve their standard of living and set a country on a more prosperous path. Popular impatience, exacerbated by the belief that nearly all those at the top are lining their pockets, unreasonably shortens the time governments have to produce results.”

Although Naim, who was born in Venezuela and once served as its trade minister, cites the example of Latin America where 11 governments fell because of corruption his arguments apply equally to Pakistan.

Used as an excuse

Between 1988 and 1999 no elected civilian government was allowed to complete its term because of alleged corruption. The 1999 military coup that brought General Pervez Musharraf to power was also justified on grounds that Pakistan’s generals were better suited to wage the war against corruption.

As Naim points out, “There is no doubt that corruption is a scourge. But there is also no doubt that many countries crippled by corruption are not sinking. Hungary, Italy and Poland are just a few examples of countries where prosperity has coexisted with significant levels of corruption. China, India and Thailand are not only not sinking, they are prospering, despite widespread corruption.”

His purpose is not to condone corruption. He seeks only to point out the elites of some countries can ignore more fundamental problems while obsessing about corruption. Often, deviation from constitutional governance and frequent ouster of elected leaders still does not end it.

During the mid-1990s Pakistanis felt dishonoured by the revelation that Transparency International (TI) had listed Pakistan as the second most corrupt country in the world.

Once the establishment had run the politicians down and used corruption as an excuse for increasing its power in a succession of palace coups, discussion over Pakistan’s rating for corruption by TI has seldom made news.

Hardly anyone has noticed, for example, that Pakistan’s rating for perceived corruption increased in 2004 over the 2003 rating. The scores on TI’s index range from 10 (clean) to zero (highly corrupt).

Pakistan’s rating in the 2003 survey was 2.5 and in 2004 it stood at 2.1. Pakistan was tied in 6th position as the most corrupt country in 2004, whereas it was in 11th position in 2003.

The methodology for determining the level of corruption in a country is such that the ranking is less important than the rating. A country can be the worst in a certain year, when fewer nations are surveyed, but move up or down in the rankings because of changes in the number of countries surveyed. Pakistan’s rating, on the other hand, has improved little over the years.

In Pakistan’s case, corruption is a constant factor, which is exaggerated or downplayed according to the political needs of the country’s bureaucracy and generals. The Pakistani establishment uses corruption as an excuse to boot out or denigrate the politicians, while covering up the corruption of military officers and civil servants.

Honest Pakistanis must carry on their struggle against corruption, but anti-corruption crusades have been used by the country’s establishment to deprive the country of democratic governance and popular participation in government. As Naim points out, the obsession with corruption is diverting attention from and preventing debate on many other issues that Pakistanis must address.

The Quest for Democracy

Gulf News, March 9 , 2005

Several recent developments indicate that President George W. Bush’s vision of democracy for the Muslim world may not be as far-fetched as it appears to the US president’s critics. Multi-candidate presidential elections have been held in Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories. Iraq has elected a transitional National Assembly, which will draw up the country’s constitution.

Mass demonstrations in Lebanon have forced the resignation of the country’s pro-Syrian government. Syria now appears willing to phase out its military presence in Lebanon. Stirrings of democracy have also been visible in several bastions of authoritarian rule where authoritarianism has hitherto been backed by Washington.

Saudi Arabia has held local government elections though franchise was restricted to men and political parties were not allowed. Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak has announced his willingness to hold a multi-candidate presidential election after wielding power for 24 years.

Kuwaiti women have held a demonstration to demand the right to vote. Are authoritarian dominos about to fall and is a wave of democracy sweeping the greater Middle East, the region from Morocco to Pakistan? Maybe. But there are still many obstacles to be overcome.

The desire of the people in Muslim countries for democracy is overwhelming. But in most cases Muslim elites the economic beneficiaries of authoritarian rule have argued against democracy. The United States was viewed as being on the side of Muslim dictators in the past. President Bush’s calls for democracy, backed by military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as political intervention in the Palestinian territories, have encouraged dormant democratic movements in the region to resurface.

Momentous change

The momentum for democratisation might be lost, however, if the United States push for change is selective. If Washington accepts “baby steps” from its friendly dictators while demanding complete transformation elsewhere, the greater Middle East would be denied the momentous change of the sort experienced in Eastern Europe after the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.

Take Saudi Arabia’s local elections and Mubarak’s promise of a contested presidential election. Several Middle Eastern (and Pakistani) regimes have used local elections in the past to create the illusion of a phased transition to democracy. But, while local elections have been projected as the first step towards democracy they have often not been followed by other steps.

It has taken Mubarak 24 years to agree to a multi-candidate presidential election, but there is no sign that he would provide his critics a level playing field in challenging his rule. Even as Mubarak announced his plans for amending the constitution through a rubber stamp parliament, which might water down his promise, opposition leader Ayman Nour of the newly formed Al Ghad (Tomorrow) Party remained imprisoned.

The quest for freedom, rule of law and the right to choose leaders at constitutionally mandated intervals is a global phenomenon. If the Muslim world has not been able to build democracies, it is not because the people of Muslim countries did not want it.

The dynamic of international relations, the Cold War interplay of superpowers with each supporting its own preferred dictators which has continued until now is partly to blame for the Muslim world’s inability to join the global trend towards democratic governance.

Even now in the case of certain countries, such as Egypt and Pakistan, the weight of the United States is behind dictatorship and not with democratic forces.

Soon after Mubarak’s promise of a contested election, former US ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner wrote in The Washington Post that Egypt’s transition to democracy should be gradual so that stability is maintained. There was no acknowledgement of the fact that Mubarak has been in power for 24 years and if he had genuinely been committed to gradualism, Egyptian democracy would have moved somewhat forward.

In the case of Pakistan, there is a tendency among US officials to compare its governance with Middle Eastern dictatorships than with South Asian democracies. US ambassador to Islamabad, Ryan C. Crocker, a former ambassador to Syria, would probably consider Pakistan a free country in comparison with Baathist totalitarianism.

Musharraf’s military regime has, by all accounts, several positive accomplishments to its credit. But Pakistan under Musharraf is not a democracy and the general must be nudged by the United States towards a clearly worked out plan for moving Pakistan to the same level of democracy as is practised across its eastern border in India.

That said, it is also important to note that the momentum for democracy depends only partly on external factors. The United States cannot support democracy in countries where at least some citizens do not take the risk of demanding freedom.

In Egypt and some other Arab countries, repression is so strong that democratic movements have simply been unable to overcome tyranny. In Pakistan, democratic political parties have allowed the military and the intelligence services to define them instead of defying the military regime and mobilising their people.