The US-Pakistan Relations under Obama

The new US outlook
By Shahid Javed Burki, Dawn, December 16, 2008

WHICH way Pakistan will go in the next few years — perhaps in the next decade or two — will be influenced by some developments over which Islamabad has little control. The shape of things to come will be determined by how the administration of president-elect Barack Obama views Pakistan; what kind of stance India adopts towards the country after the terrorist attacks in Mumbai; and what kind of relations develop between the US-led West and the Muslim world of which Pakistan is an important part.

Pakistan, given its unending reliance on external capital flows, has to pay attention to how it is perceived by those who provide the resources the country relies on for running its economy. The most important of these remains the US but the Middle East also matters: Pakistan is now a major recipient of foreign direct investment from that part of the world, and the last thing the oil-producing countries of the Gulf want is a major conflict on their borders. Today I will focus on America’s changing perceptions regarding its interests in South Asia.

As America’s 44th president, Barack Obama has little in common with President George W. Bush whom he succeeds next month. Bush was not a deep thinker. He was not curious about the way the world works. He was also remarkably stubborn about changing the course he had adopted once he had followed it for a while, even when it became clear that disaster awaited. He was proud of the fact that he allowed his instincts and God’s direction to guide him in fashioning public policy.

Obama, on the other hand, is in favour of letting his ideas be shaped by people who are as bright as he is and who have more experience in government affairs. The Washington Post recently published an interesting analysis of the type of people Obama was bringing into his administration. It pointed out that of Obama’s top 35 appointments so far 22 have degrees from an Ivy League school or one of the top British universities.“While Obama’s picks have been lauded for their ethnic and ideological mix, they lag diversity in one regard: they are almost exclusively products of the nation’s elite institutions and generally share a more intellectual outlook than is often the norm,” said the newspaper. The world view of this group will be very different from the people who governed from Washington for eight years under the leadership of President Bush.

One difference between the approach of Obama’s people and that of the people they are succeeding is the strong belief that the world is interconnected, more so than ever before. President Bush and his team were exponents of the point of view that is generally referred to as ‘American exceptionalism’. According to this, America is very different from the rest of the world. It has a unique place in the community of states and has the responsibility of spreading its system of values to other parts of the world.

This reading of America’s history and its world vision prompted the Bush administration to articulate four objectives as a part of the strategy in international affairs. The first was that having defeated the Soviet Union in the conflict over ideologies that marked the Cold War era, America was not prepared to allow any other country to challenge its power.

Second, it was not only the sole surviving superpower, it was an uberpower, with so much economic and military strength concentrated in its hands that no country should dare to challenge it.

Third, it was prepared to launch pre-emptive strikes if it felt that its strategic interests were threatened.

Fourth, it would promote the adoption of what President Bush regarded as universal values. Most important of these was democracy: governments should be run by the will of the people exercised openly and transparently.

All this constituted a remarkable change from the realism of policymakers such as Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft who were big influences on the previous Republican administrations. They took the world as it was; it was not America’s business to reshape it. Its only concern was to properly read the world and to ensure that within what existed America would be able to protect its strategic interests.

The Bush doctrine turned out difficult to pursue. The rest of the world was not prepared to accept that America could proceed unchecked, accomplishing the mission it had defined for itself without consulting its allies.

Even when democracy was tried as a way of organising the affairs of governments, it turned out that elections produced results the Americans did not like. This happened in Gaza and Lebanon where the citizens elected Hamas and Hizbollah respectively. The notion that America could do it on its own began to be challenged by several European countries and by China. The latter was rapidly gaining on America in the field of economics.

When Obama campaigned he promised change. It was clear that the Americans also wanted to proceed on a different course. He has been elected and there is no doubt that change will come. This is why Islamabad has to take serious note of the rapidly changing perceptions in Washington as a new administration takes shape.

The government headed by Barack Obama will bring an entirely new style of governance and thinking about international affairs. One thing is already clear: Obama and his talented and experienced team will bring a holistic approach in dealing with the various problems in the world the US must confront. Unlike President Bush, President Obama will look at the world from more angles than only that of terrorism. And even where terrorism is concerned he is likely to go deeper to determine its cause than to use the bring-’em-on approach President Bush followed.

In a remarkably lucid 45-minute interview with journalist Tom Brokaw on the popular news programme, Meet the Press, president-elect Obama covered a number of areas where his administration would get deeply involved the moment it was sworn into office. South Asia is one of them. President Bush looked at the countries of this region from the perspective of two of his concerns. His preoccupation with terrorism had him focus on Pakistan. And his concern about rising China was the main reason for his efforts to develop a close relationship with India. Obama promises a different kind of engagement with South Asia. Islamabad would do well to prepare itself for the new dialogue with Washington.

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