Saturday, October 31, 2009
Hillary Clinton's three-day visit to Pakistan, her first as US secretary of state, marks a fairly distinct break with the past. Unlike her tough-talking and deliberately abrasive predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, Ms Clinton went out of her way to be charming, open and to talk to a wide range of people. Her experiences in the US Senate also meant she brought in a mature handling of queries and a better understanding of how complex the regional situation is. The interaction with students at the Government College University in Lahore should have been especially instructive for the person who will be playing a key role in devising foreign policy in Washington. The students who lined up to question her were not hostile. But they made it clear they shared with the majority of citizens a lack of trust for the US and scepticism about intentions. To her credit Ms Clinton accepted there were good grounds for this lack of faith. Her assurance that the Obama administration represented real change is one that will need though to be proven through deeds and not just words. The sometimes startled response from the secretary of state to the far tougher questions thrown at her by a TV panel made up of top anchor people suggests the government functionaries she met in Islamabad may have offered up a typically sanitized picture of prevailing sentiments. It is, therefore, encouraging that despite the immense security concerns Hillary Clinton made it a point to see the 'real' Pakistan, also holding a meeting with Mian Nawaz Sharif in his home city.
But for all her pleasant smiles, Ms Clinton did not shy away from making some things quite clear. She stated that she believed the Al Qaeda leadership was indeed in Pakistan, she stressed an all-out effort on every front was needed against terrorism and she focused on how much Pakistan had to gain, especially in economic terms, by normalizing ties with India. If we are honest, we cannot deny that much of what she said was true. For reasons buried in ideology, many of us, whether we draw influence from the right or the left of the political spectrum, have difficulty in suggesting that an alliance with the US could benefit Pakistan. It would also be naïve to assume that Washington wishes to 'help' Pakistan as an ally. International relations are after all geared around self-interest and self-preservation. There is nothing noble about Washington's focus on Islamabad. But it is possible that at this particular moment in history the interests of both nations coincide. This is something we should use to our advantage.
Overcoming the militant threat and entering in to a less acrimonious relationship with India would benefit most citizens. There are segments that would stand to lose, but ways must be found to prevent them from subverting the interests of the majority. They have done so repeatedly through the decades since 1947. The current US setup seems to have recognized some of this. Ms Clinton also emphasized in this respect a dramatic change in policy from those of the George W Bush-led team. The Bush administration's virtually blind backing for former president Musharraf created a number of the problems we face today. Our political leaders must assess the way we can most effectively counter these. In realistic terms, going beyond rhetoric or wishful thinking, it is inevitable that we will need to work with the US at least for some years to come. We cannot on our own hope to conquer that monster of terrorism that Washington's policies helped create. Nor do we have the economic or moral wherewithal to do this. Hillary Clinton has demonstrated a willingness to better understand concerns in Pakistan and to open wider the doors of communication. There are still plenty of reasons to be wary of US intentions. But for now, the opportunities for a more open relation laid out by the secretary of state need to be seized and utilized to pull our country out of the pit into which it has stumbled as a result of errors made in the past.