As Pakistan’s political arena remains convulsed, Richard Olson, the United States (US) Ambassador in Pakistan, has reiterated his country’s support for a ‘strong democratic system’ in Pakistan. Earlier, after meeting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in New York on the sidelines of the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly, US Vice President, Joe Biden, also affirmed American support for democratic development in Pakistan.
While refusing to take sides or endorse any viewpoint, the US, no doubt, wants a negotiated settlement to the current political impasse. For now, at least, it holds that increasing democratization in Pakistan leading to pluralism and establishment of genuine rule of law will reduce extremist tendencies in the country.
Washington’s pro-democracy script for Pakistan, however, should not be taken for granted by our political stakeholders as an ironclad guarantee. For ultimately, American policy choices vis-à-vis Pakistan will be motivated by realist or pragmatic considerations and not idealism or high moral principles, especially since its enthusiasm for democracy promotion has generally been tempered in recent years by the turmoil in post-invasion Iraq and electoral outcomes favoring extremist factions in Palestine and Egypt.
A brief look at historical and contemporary US practice points to a contradiction in its pro-democracy rhetoric and its actions guided by self-interest. American pro-democracy commitments should, therefore, be viewed as idealism or moralism distinct from its interests, notwithstanding tangible stakes for it as well as the rest of the world in the spread of democracy, such as greater peace, prosperity, and pluralism.
[quote]US’ pro-democracy commitments are guided by pragmatic concerns[/quote]
The Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union frequently led the US to support illiberal governments across various continents. A consensus, however, emerged during the Reagan Presidency in the 1980s that the US had strategic interests in urging its non-democratic allies toward democracy. This bi-partisan consensus for democracy has since endured in Washington and forms a cornerstone of American foreign policy. But crucially, its implementation remains subject to US’ realist or pragmatic compulsions.
President George W Bush famously elevated democratization in the Middle East as a strategic priority. This grand aim, however, was swiftly undone by multiple factors: the association of democracy promotion with military intervention in Iraq; the use of harsh counterterrorism measures that scarred the symbolism of freedom; the tendency to recoil when electoral outcomes were problematic from the standpoint of American interests; and the failure to meet democracy rhetoric with action in Egypt and Pakistan whose non-democratic leaders, Mubarak and Musharraf, were the toast of Washington during the Bush II era.
The Arab Spring in early 2011 confronted President Barack Obama with the familiar challenge of squaring US’ democratic idealism with its interests. President Obama’s struggle to reconcile these pressures came after he began his Presidency distancing himself from Washington’s mixed democracy-promotion legacy. His failure to embrace Iran’s inspiring Green Movement in the summer of 2009 was a clear illustration of his administration’s more realist turn.
In Egypt, similar to the Bush II administration’s quandary with respect to Musharraf in 2007-8, the Obama administration faced a classic dilemma of how to handle the potential demise of a friendly autocrat in a strategically important country. Initially, it tried to pursue a pro-democracy script in Egypt. Today, however, that pro-democracy script is long forgotten, as though it never existed. And the US political and media class are right back to openly supporting military autocracy in Egypt as enthusiastically as they supported the Mubarak regime. General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who last year led the military coup against the democratically elected Egyptian government of the Muslim Brotherhood, is now a Washington favorite, with hefty military and civilian aid lavished upon his regime. Just last week, President Obama met Sisi where the US President touted the longstanding relationship between the US and Egypt as a cornerstone of American policy in the Middle East.
Significantly, thus, US pro-democracy commitments continue to be guided by realist or pragmatic concerns, notwithstanding President Obama’s 2010 address to the UN General Assembly, where he remarked, ‘There is no right more fundamental than the ability to choose your leaders and determine your destiny.’
As the US grapples with the rising threat of Islamic terrorism underlined by the surge of ISIS and as it prepares to wind up its combat mission in Afghanistan, the one thing it desperately wants to avoid is an unstable nuclear-armed Pakistan unable to eliminate non-state terrorist actors that operate from its territory and gravely threaten regional and global security.In this context, if the current political crisis deepens to the point where the state’s administrative ability to effectively tackle terrorism crumbles, the US will have no qualms about throwing its weight behind a stabilizing governmental order in Pakistan, irrespective of its democratic credentials.
This is no argument for a non-democratic intervention in Pakistan. Rather, it is a get-on-with-it call to all the political stakeholders to find a solution to the prevailing crisis before the current US-led international support for democratization in Pakistan wanes.
The writer is a lawyer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org