Decades Late and (Billions of) Dollars Short: the U.S. Begins Considering the Facts in Pakistan

02/01/2011 02:23 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

For the past three years, I -- and many others, including my colleagues at the Rule of Law Institute -- have argued that the shameless human rights abuses of the Pakistani government would undermine the government's efforts to address violent extremism. Like U.S. policies that favor dumb power at the cost of smart power, like arbitrary detention or systematic profiling, abuses of the rule of law undermine the legitimacy of governments that claim to defend democracy in the face of violence.

The NY Times has finally chosen to pay a nod to these concerns, recently reporting what close observers have decried for years: rampant lawlessness on the part of the Pakistani government, which has used national security as a pretext to detain and torture political dissidents. Recent controversy over Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which inspired a bodyguard to assassinate a provincial governor (and in the interest of full disclosure, prompted my family to seek refuge in the U.S. in the 1970s) has further exposed how little democracy actually means in Pakistan.

On the one hand, it's great to see the NY Times finally addressing these concerns. On the other hand are various failings that remain a stain on the corporate media's deservedly poor reputation. For instance, as long as sham democracy is on the table, it bears noting that half a million Americans who reside in the District of Columbia are formally denied any representation in Congress, or that President Obama has declared the authority to assassinate a U.S. citizen without any process or trial, or that surveillance has metastasized in recent years and swelled beyond any measure previously seen in human history.

The continued deference of critics to executive obfuscation prompts even more disappointing omissions. One lie, in particular, stands out:

"This issue has been a persistent challenge for Pakistan," said a senior American official who deals with South Asia and who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter. "We're trying to help Pakistan build democratic institutions so they can be a more effective partner."

As thoroughly documented in the January 2007 report by the National Lawyers Guild that I co-authored, U.S. foreign policy has hardly supported democratic institutions in Pakistan. In fact -- as it has in much of the rest of the world -- America has consistently degraded democratic institutions at nearly every opportunity, entrenching dictatorships even in the face of instability prompted by popular democracy movements who would be our natural allies. As I've written elsewhere:

Put simply, while the U.S. claims to its own citizens to support democracy abroad, that claim is a charade transparent to people in other countries. It's not "our freedoms" that "they hate," but rather our weapons -- and our longstanding penchant of giving them to regimes that deny freedoms and oppress their own people. Even conservative foreign policy experts have argued that, well before 9-11, the "presence [of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia wa]s known to contribute to anti-American sentiment."

A similar dynamic remains at work today in Saudi Arabia, where the ruling regime, propped up by U.S. weapons sales, desecrates religious sites in the name of crass commercialism.

Beyond the substance, the process of this story is also noteworthy, in that the Times cites diplomatic cables leaked by WikiLeaks confirming that "'Disappeared' Pakistanis -- innocent and guilty alike -- have fallen into a legal black hole." Had those cables been transparent, they could have informed the debate far sooner. And rather than debating old news years after the fact, we could begin to shape an informed discourse about a rational foreign policy looks like.