THE BLOG

A New Foreign Policy: Hillary Clinton Targets Pakistan

As Afghanistan and Pakistan grabbed the world headlines for the last week in October, in one breaking story after another, we could discern, at last, the structural and strategic underpinnings of the Obama administration's foreign policy. In this regard, Hillary Clinton's trip to Pakistan was a landmark occasion, obscured somewhat by the week's tumble of events: Senator John Kerry's return from Afghanistan and his very telling address at the Council on Foreign Relations a week ago Monday, the subsequent revelations about the connections between Hamid Karzai's brother and the CIA, the terrorist killings in Kabul and Peshawar Wednesday, the rumors about Abdullah Abdullah bowing out of the run-off election in Afghanistan, Abdullah's formal withdrawal Sunday and the hasty confirmation of Karzai as Afghan President once again.

But ground zero for the week was Hillary Clinton's three-day visit to Islamabad and Lahore, her first to Pakistan as Secretary of State, which began inauspiciously on the day of the terrorist attacks and was widely derided in the Pakistani press and cursorily covered here at home. As of yesterday, for example, The Onion's YouTube video "U.S. Condemned for Pre-Emptive Use of Hillary Clinton Against Pakistan" had over 125,000 views while excerpts from the question-and-answer session between Mrs. Clinton and seven Pakistani journalists, which appeared on Pakistani television, had a tenth of that. Therefore, it is worth taking a closer look at Mrs. Clinton's visit to Pakistan if, as I believe, it was both her real debut as Secretary of State and a peek at how the Obama administration is going to play the difficult hand it has been dealt in South Asia.

After nine months as President, Barack Obama has yet to make a convincing argument to the American people for the long war in Afghanistan that most military professionals and policy experts conclude, however reluctantly, is inevitable. At this point, the delay is a political calculation: what is the last possible minute, in order not to take away the gathering momentum behind health insurance reform, to announce that more young Americans are going to Afghanistan? Complicating the near-certainty that this will be most unwelcome news (and surprising to some) is a general confusion in American minds. What exactly is the Obama administration's foreign policy? Are we for or against further Israeli settlements in the West Bank, for example? Even as President Obama repeats his mantra, "We must win in Afghanistan," he is telling the Karzai government that their (green) army and (corrupt) police force must bear the brunt of the war against the insurgents or America's forces will leave. The inherent contradiction makes this a hollow threat.

The President's speech last March about Afghanistan, on the occasion of his sending an additional 20,000 troops there, only confused us, for Obama went from a clear statement that we were in the country to destroy al Qaeda to a commitment for everything from Afghan women's rights to better schools--the old Bush doctrine of nation-building, in short. Probably not one in twenty Americans could say now what was in that speech or characterize Obama's general policy in the region.

But the deterioration of South Asia, with the subsequent possibility that not only both Afghanistan and Pakistan could in a few years fall to fundamentalist Islamic regimes or descend into failed states but also that India would be affected and China and Iran might respond in ways we oppose--the domino theory realized at last--is a situation that our President has yet to use his pulpit to address cogently and realistically. However, the President may decide to lead us, every day that passes and he does not is an opportunity lost that may not come again.

One thing is already certain, however, and Secretary of State Clinton's Pakistan visit dramatized it. In the television-saturated world of the early twenty-first century, a "hands across the sea" opening gambit no longer works. The world has seen American friendliness and grown accustomed at best, weary and cynical at worst. After President Obama's Cairo speech, for example, we discovered just how little weight a few Arabic phrases and gestures carry when they are not accompanied by at least one of the American actions for which Arabs yearn. And so Pashtun Pakistan was unimpressed, even at times insulted, by Hillary Clinton's moments of descent into what the Pakistani press called her charm offensive last week.

At worst, Clinton displayed false bonhomie--the claim from a guest to an acquaintanceship with a host far greater than actually exists--with the sort of cringe-inducing comment that the world has come to expect from Vice-President Biden. (His July remark that "Ukraine has the world's most beautiful women," for example, elicited an appalled reaction from a populace sensitive to the fact that Kyiv is the mail-order bride capital of the world and Odessa a principal conduit for trafficking in the sex trade.) Similarly, terrorist-embattled Pakistanis were not impressed by Hillary Clinton's testimonial to her love for kebabs and the salwar kameez as proof that she is a friend to the Pakistani people.

The low point of Clinton's Pakistan visit, from a public relations point of view, was the so-called town hall meeting Friday afternoon, near the end of her trip, at the National Art Gallery in Islamabad with a large group of professional women. These business leaders, teachers and parliamentarians should have been an audience with whom Mrs. Clinton could connect. Her advance team, however, explained to the room (the women restively awaiting Clinton's late arrival) that the format for the event would be like the television show "The View." Is it any wonder that the university professors and women like Ameena Saiyid, a managing director of Oxford University Press with an OBE, were insulted? They had serious and detailed questions about national security and American intentions and did not want to hear Mrs. Clinton wax generally, as she did, on training our "habits of the heart" to better learn and to compromise.

This Pakistan trip, which also included fraught conversations with a delegation of business leaders at Governor's House in Lahore, with tribal leaders from the Northwest Territories in Islamabad and with confrontational students at Government College University, was a far cry from Hillary Clinton's first trip to Pakistan fourteen years ago when she was First Lady. On that previous trip, accompanied by her daughter, Chelsea, and a Wellesley classmate who covered the trip for CBS News, Mrs. Clinton was introduced to a carefully selected group of women at a ladies' lunch hosted by Benazir Bhutto. Clinton paid a social call on a politician's wife who kept purdah. She was presented with flowers, demonstrations of local crafts and a celebratory evening in the old Mogul fort in Lahore, complete with dancing elephants and fireworks. Clinton's trip "blends the giddiness of a sorority spring break with the sober feel of a graduate seminar on the responsibilities of sisterhood," Todd Purdum wrote for the New York Times back in 1995. "In Pakistan Mrs. Clinton, a Midwestern-born Methodist, awoke at dawn to the prayer call of a muezzin over the loudspeakers of a mosque, and shared with schoolgirls her thoughts on the politics of meaning. . . ." Purdum's account of that trip shows not only that condescension can move in many directions but also how far civic life has frayed in a fledgling democracy whose culture we Americans have so poorly understood.

When Mrs. Clinton made her "chick trip" to Pakistan, American-Pakistani relations were cool, particularly since President Clinton refused to certify Pakistan for nuclear nonproliferation and therefore economic sanctions against the country came into effect. But our relationship since then has become much worse. Last week Mrs. Clinton flew into a hail of negativity, reflected in the headlines of the Pakistani English-language news, print and online: "Anti-US Wave Endangers Efforts in Pakistan," "US Aid Fails to Win Pakistan," "Pakistanis Snub Clinton Diplomacy." In a recent poll, more than 52% of Pakistanis believe that America is responsible for the violence tearing apart their cities; only 15% blame terrorist groups. Almost 80% of Pakistanis believe that al Qaeda's main goal is standing up to the United States; over half the people support that goal. Further charging the toxic atmosphere was a Pakistani dubiousness about Mrs. Clinton herself. People remembered her January, 2008 display of ignorance about Pakistani governance; at that time she speculated about then President Musharraf's standing for election when in fact he was not required to run.

A surprising ignorance--perhaps thoughtlessness is a better word--colored Mrs. Clinton's October, 2009 remarks about Pakistan, as well. In her interview with Pakistani journalists, Mrs. Clinton made the astounding admission that it had never occurred to her that Pakistanis might take amiss--as indeed they have--the U.S. Congress's back-and-forth on whether or not to attach strings to the Kerry-Lugar aid bill that is going to triple new aid to Pakistan. Unlike Mrs. Clinton, I have never visited Pakistan; nevertheless, the likelihood of a Pakistani push-back fueled by the sense that they have been insulted was the first thing that came to my mind. What Americans say in public are the kind of remarks that Pakistanis say in private--and vice versa. In terms of public versus private diplomacy, Americans and Pakistanis are polar opposites. And so Mrs. Clinton said to the journalists, who like many other Pakistanis grilled her about the terms of Kerry-Lugar, that she was surprised by the Pakistani reaction. "It was not on my list of worries," she said, before going on to flatter her hosts with the compliment that Pakistanis read U.S. legislation much more carefully than Americans do.

On topics ranging from American drone attacks to our current silence on the Kashmir dispute, Pakistanis challenged the Secretary of State. She had expected confrontation--indeed the primary purpose of her visit seems to have been a public relations and media blitz to begin to try to repair American-Pakistani relations. "I don't expect this to happen overnight," Mrs. Clinton told the journalists. "The spirited conversation we have had here today . . . has been very helpful to me." One of the male journalists echoed her sentiment with a "yes." So perhaps in terms of a better understanding between Americans and Pakistanis this overture was a very small start. At least, I try to tell myself that. As John Kerry told the Council on Foreign Relations a week ago, "Pakistan could eventually become the epicenter of extremism in the world. We have enormous strategic interest in the outcome of the struggle in Pakistan." The day after Hillary Clinton left Pakistan, a girls' school in the Khyber region was bombed. More than 200 girls' schools have been destroyed in the past year.

Friday: What was good about Clinton's visit, and what her actions in Pakistan reveal about our new foreign policy.