Republicans vs. Democrats

Published in The Express Tribune – photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais

As Mitt Romney’s square jaw and business credentials come closer to snaring the Republican nomination, Pakistanis are again hoping for a gentler Washington. An unimpressive man in a pool of more obvious disasters, Romney represents an idea that should have been thrown out with the elder George Bush in 1992: that Republicans have worked out better for Pakistan than have their Democrat rivals.

Shiny, shapeless Romney comforts those who still remember 2008, when the last presidential challenger promised more drone attacks and raiding the country if there were a chance to kill Osama. He did both and looked the other way during more, with contractors murdering our citizens and Nato strikes killing our soldiers. Pakistan is reeling after four years of Obama, a president tagged for being weak in every facet of foreign policy except ours.

Hence we tell ourselves Pakistan’s case for a Republican White House is strong: newly declassified papers allege Richard Nixon’s willingness to go as far as attacking Indian army facilities during the war in 1971. Less than two years later, Nixon declared that ‘the integrity of Pakistan is the cornerstone of American foreign policy.’ Such a statement today might only be made for Canada or Israel (and England if Tony Blair were still in office, ever-ready to sacrifice his people to Dick Cheney). Then there’s sainted Ronald Reagan, honest-to-God Republican and endless well of money and Stinger missiles that we passed on to our favourite Gulbuddins in Afghanistan during the 1980s.

We often forget that for both Nixon and Reagan, bigger prizes — rapprochement with the Chinese, bashing in the Soviets — were perhaps more important than any love from the Pakistanis. But it’s still easy to contrast their support with the unfriendliness of the Democrats: with Jimmy Carter, severing all ties with Pakistan when the American Embassy was burned down in Islamabad in 1979. Or with Bill Clinton, whose six-hour visit to the capital in 2000 included a lecture on Kashmir and refusing to be photographed shaking hands with Pervez Musharraf. Humiliating as that was, it’s six hours more than whatever time another Democrat, the current U.S. president, has spent on our soil.

But this conclusion, that the reds have been better for our interests than the blues, has been made redundant by two broader trends. The first is the Bush administration’s savage and stupid response to 9/11. Steered by men that were almost fanatically neoconservative, American foreign policy became coloured by the densest unilateralism, by binary terms of good and evil, by an us-versus-them approach in which a Muslim nuclear state between Iran and Afghanistan almost certainly fell under Them.

And as the war in Afghanistan has progressed, the theatre of war has nightmarishly shifted to our own north-west.  There is no hiding the fact that the American policymaker’s perspective of Pakistan is more negative today than it ever has been, regardless of party allegiance.

The second is that America itself has changed, and not just following 9/11. It has been changing for a long time. Over the past half-century, Republican vote-getting strategies in the US’s heartland have been cynical exercises in fear, race, and resentment. The resulting rise of an aspirational middle class in America, increasingly white, intolerant, and inward-looking, has made electoral candidates drift even further right. This is best explained by the Tea Party, an assortment of out-of-control libertarians and social conservatives against everything except guns, and a source of unending pain for the Republican establishment.

Putting the two factors together explains how the Grand Old Party has let itself become the God & Oil Party, its leaders drab and consciously myopic. Romney finds Pakistanis ‘comfortable’ with drone strikes. Newt Gingrich warns of the ‘extremists’ within reach of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Rick Perry talks incoherently of making friends with India in relation to ‘the Pakistani country’. These are not, with the possible exception of Perry, stupid men. They cater to an audience that widely opposed the building of an Islamic centre near Ground Zero, ‘desecrate’ as it might the memories of the 9/11 victims, and popularly views Pakistan as a bag of warheads that undefined radicals might snatch up at any second.

The way out, then, lies not with parties changing in the White House but with us, viewing our relations in the light of other countries’ interests afresh. Pakistan straddles the most dynamic region in the world, and it’s innovative thinking that’s required. Maybe our own policymakers should also be inspired towards acting creatively and pragmatically towards the changing world around them, rather than taking each day as it comes. But refusing to be stuck in our history shouldn’t make us oblivious to it either.

A Democratic president has been a tragedy for Pakistan. A Republican America would be worse.