Causes of the GOP crisis
WHEN I last wrote on the US mid-term elections almost four months ago, the surveys seemed to show that the Democrats would be able to wrest control of the House of Representatives from the Republicans and that they also had a good chance of reducing the GOP majority in the Senate. Nothing that has happened in these past months suggests that the picture has brightened for the Republicans.
It is not that President Bush hasn’t tried. Beginning early this month, he has made a number of speeches seeking to highlight the success of his war on terrorism and trying to put the best possible face on the situation in Iraq. Culminating in a White House prime-time address to the nation, after visits to all three sites of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the speeches were designed to remind Americans of the horrors of the attacks and to convince them that the invasion of Iraq was the right and proper response to the threat that terrorism posed to the US. As The New York Times put it, Bush was attempting to meld “one of the most unifying events in recent national experience — the common horror and sadness of the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon — with one of the most polarising, the war in Iraq.”
Did the attempt succeed? By all accounts it has been a damp squib, doing nothing to change the minds of Democrat voters and achieving virtually nothing in terms of swaying independents or, even more ominously, the growing ranks of disillusioned Republicans. This despite his ominous warning that “the worst mistake would be to think that if we pulled out [of Iraq], the terrorists would leave us alone. They will not leave us alone. They will follow us. The safety of America depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad.”
What will be remembered about the speeches is Bush’s admission that Saddam had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. They will be remembered for the fact that they were made at a time when the Senate released parts of its 9/11 report, which stated clearly that there were no connections between Zarqawi and the Saddam Hussein government — giving the lie not only to the pre-war claims made by Secretary Powell in his speech to the UN Security Council, but also those aired as recently as August when Bush talked of Zarqawi’s links to the Saddam regime.
They will be remembered for the acid comment from Democrat Senator Kennedy that “the president should be ashamed of using a national day of mourning to commandeer the airwaves to give a speech that was designed not to unite the country and commemorate the fallen, but to seek support for a war in Iraq that he has admitted had ‘nothing’ to do with 9/11”.
Bush’s current policy appears to be to not just emphasise that the war in Iraq is the central feature in the fight against terror, but also to present this conflict in religious or almost biblical terms. In a recent interview with conservative journalists, he is reported to have said that “a lot of people in America see this as a confrontation between good and evil, including me.” He went on to add, “it seems to me that there’s a Third Awakening”, a reference to the revival of Christianity which according to some historians has occurred twice earlier in the United States. When read in conjunction with his reference to “Islamic Fascism”, this would seem to suggest that he sees the war in terms of an Islamic threat to the Christian West, against which the Christians of America have been, or need to be, awakened.
Earlier this month, coinciding with the series of speeches made by Bush, we saw the release of a new US strategy for combating terrorism. It emphasises that al-Qaeda has been severely disrupted, with many of its leaders killed or captured. The influence of US policy in the Middle East is described as minimal, portraying the Iraq war and the renewed Arab-Israeli strife as sources of deceptive propaganda for terrorist ideologues. Terrorism, the strategy says, “is not simply a result of hostility to US policy in Iraq ... Israeli-Palestinian issues ... [or] our efforts to prevent terror attacks.”
This stands in stark contrast to the concepts embraced by the earlier counter-terrorism strategy, which had declared that “finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a critical component to winning the war of ideas”, and said that “no other issue has so coloured the perception of the United States in the Muslim world.” The present policy statement, which delinks America’s unstinting support for Israel from the rise of extremism and terrorism in the Muslim world, is of a piece with the stance adopted by America when the Israelis seized upon a Hezbollah provocation to destroy Lebanon yet again. It is clearly designed to ensure that Israeli support for Bush, and by extension for the candidates of Bush’s party, remains strong. It is not clear, however, whether this will of itself be enough to influence the souring mood of the electorate.
The Republicans’ loss of support is owed at least in part to their lackadaisical performance in Congress and to the corruption scandals that have hit both parties but have been particularly damaging to the GOP leadership. National polls show that key indicators — presidential approval ratings, Congressional approval ratings, attitudes on the direction of the country — reflect an electorate that is unhappy with the status quo and open to change. In exact terms, the latest New York Times/CBS polls show that just 29 per cent of the electorate feel that the country is headed in the right direction.
It is this openness to change that has made respected analysts in Washington predict that the House will change hands and that the Senate may well do so come November 7. The Democrats need to pick up 15 seats in the House and six in the Senate in order to win control. According to most informed observers in America, the Democrats are almost certain to get the seats they need to win control of the House. In the last few months, the prospects for getting six additional seats in the Senate also seem to have improved.
Even though it currently seems that the most the Democrats can do is take the five senate seats (Pennsylvania, Montana, Rhode Island, Ohio and Missouri) in which the Republican incumbents are facing tough fights and an increasingly unsympathetic electorate, they have not entirely lost hope of pulling off an upset by picking up one or more of the contested seats in Tennessee, Arizona or Virginia.
There is no doubt that disillusionment with the performance of Congress and the consequent desire for change has affected the chances of the Republicans. But the biggest blow to the party has been the plummeting approval rating of the Republican in the White House. GOP Congressmen are avoiding public appearances with George Bush and with his master strategist Karl Rove, the president’s chief political adviser who has been credited with having crafted both Bush victories and the Republican Party’s sterling performance in all three Congressional elections in the last six years.
Bush is of course held responsible for the high price of petrol and for the general sense of economic unease that pervades the middle class, which feels that there has been a decline in compensation packages for them while the rich enjoy tax breaks. The mood is particularly sour in states like Indiana and Ohio, where local issues and the difficulties of incumbent Republican governors have added to the problems. It is, however, the war in Iraq and the almost unending stories of disasters in that country that has led to the loss of Bush’s support among all but the most diehard Republicans and the Christian fundamentalists.
The war in Afghanistan is also not going well. The resurgence of the Taliban and their emulation of the suicide-bomber tactics of the Iraqi fighters has served to remind the Americans — and the Democrats keep driving the message home — that by diverting attention and resources from Afghanistan to Iraq in 2003, President Bush and his coterie of advisors created the conditions for the Taliban to stage a comeback and for Osama bin Laden to survive. More and more Americans are beginning to believe, the administration’s claims notwithstanding, that Al-Qaeda itself remains a force and not merely a symbol for other groups in the world of terrorism.
The problem for Bush, and by extension for his party, is that the only thing they have to offer to the electorate is that they are better fighters for the security of the United States than the Democrats. The Americans are hardly likely to buy this given the dismal mess that this so-called quest for security has led to. In Afghanistan, with the Taliban alive and kicking hard, the security situation is as bad as at any time since the American invasion in 2001. The only material change, cynics say, is not the introduction of democracy but the harvesting of an opium crop of 6,100 tons — in 2001, there had been zero production in the Taliban-held areas. Iraq stands on the brink of a civil war and, whatever the outcome, has become the breeding ground for a new and ferocious generation of terrorists.
Given these circumstances, it is now certain that the last two years of the Bush presidency are going to be lame duck years irrespective of the results of the Congressional elections. They may well become years of humiliation if the Democrats seize control of one chamber of Congress, and of utter humiliation if they capture both.
The writer is a former foreign secretary.
Our mighty officer
I HEARD a nice expression the other day. We were talking about the retirement of government officers and their re- employment, a favourite topic for gossip in Islamabad. The talk turned to a re-employed gentleman who would count senior even among senior citizens.
A wag among us used the metaphor of second-hand tyres to describe him. “He has been re-treaded after his bypass,” he said, “and is now good for another five years.” Not bad.
Officers long superannuated and then re-employed are not inclined to be flippant about themselves. For them, the words used to obtain the prime minister’s approval for extension in service are sacred — invaluable experience, proven ability, unimpeachable integrity, definitely irreplaceable and similar other epithets culled from Roget’s Thesaurus.
For the officer concerned these are not just ordinary expressions. They are golden testimonials which may win him another year or two in service, because, failing that, he would get shoved into the limbo of powerlessness and oblivion. And for an officer whose self-confidence and meaning in life come only from the exercise of authority and clout, this is death. Not that all officers need extensions for financial reasons. It is rare that an officer has no house of his own to live in, or his children are not yet out of college. Nine out of ten retired officers are fairly well-off and have no money problem.
There are cases of bachelor or childless federal secretaries retiring in the highest scale with no one to spend their gratuity on. But they still crave for an extension after superannuation, and would be ready to give five years of their lives in the official chair. The main reason is that most of them do not know what to do with themselves after they have been sent home, not even a family to keep them occupied.
For the government officer about to be pensioned off, service has been the be-all and end-all of existence. His whole thinking, the language he uses, the outlook he displays even in domestic problems, his entire life style, all are derived from the routine daily drudgery of office work, of meetings and discussions, of minutes and agendas, of budgets and sanctions. Of course, he doesn’t take them as drudgery. Some officers think that they are the columns on which Pakistan rests, and feel like Atlas holding up the globe.
Since these are of no use to him in afterlife (retirement for him is almost after-life) and he has no hobby, no pastime, no other vocation, he becomes a lost cow, to use a Punjabi idiom. No wonder he will beg, borrow or steal to get as much extra time as he can. The evil day when he must vacate his office and lose the fawning companionship of his PS and orderly, must be put off somehow. A good half of him dies when he finally gets home.
I am not laughing as I write this. There are sound reasons for this state of affairs. The truth is that today, notwithstanding the development of big business and modern agriculture and the arts and sciences in Pakistan, the non- official genius is still counted lower in status and prestige than the official mediocrity. This genius may have made a name for himself at the international level in any one of these fields, yet he is not a patch on the higher-grade-wallah who is in government service and is among the demigods in Pakistan.
Tangible honour and prestige in social life are still for the so-called senior officer. Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sadequain and Dr Abdus Salam (alas! All three gone now) were denied admittance into the VIP lounges of our airports, and the flunkey in charge would have felt indignant at their temerity if they had dared to consider themselves entitled to this facility because of their fame. But look how he welcomes the additional secretary, bowing and scraping before him, even though in achievement and intellect the man may not be fit to be a shop salesman.
Private bodies, NGOs, philanthropic organizations and social welfare agencies would rather cancel a function than be obliged to invite as chief guest a public figure not connected with the government of the day. In fact a cabinet minister would attract a smaller audience than a federal secretary. A distinction is clearly made in temporary clout and permanent clout.
The most pathetic aspect of this state of affairs is that the poor retired officer does not even command the respect and attention of his erstwhile colleagues. His visit to his old place of work is taken as a nuisance, an infliction, and any requests that he may have to make about his pension dues or to obtain help in some personal matter, are treated with ill-concealed annoyance.
It is then that he gets an entirely different view of the world, but completely forgets that this is exactly how he too used to behave. I can vividly recall a lecture by a retired federal secretary (when I was working with the Ombudsman), a terrible snob in his time, but now considerably chastened, advising the government servants to treat the public with consideration, patience and sympathy, something he never did himself when he was in office.
To tell you the truth, the only administrative reform needed in a democratic Pakistan is to stop the concentration of power and discretion in a small number of officers, and instead involve representatives of the people in ever greater numbers at all levels of the administration and privatise whatever government activity can be given up. Otherwise no amount of harangues and homilies and courses in NIPA and the Administrative Staff College will serve any purpose. I did a course in the latter in 1979, and came out of it without seeing the light. There was too much theory and no down-to-earth practice at all.
To bring about a palpable change in attitudes you require vision. The highly educated bureaucracy may have the vision but why should it exercise it for its own diminution?
WAF’s long march for equality
TWENTY-FIVE years ago, Fehmida and Allahbakhsh were awarded 80 lashes and death by stoning respectively by a Karachi court under the Hudood ordinances. In reaction to this savage sentence, the Women’s Action Forum was born to fight against the oppression of women.
Launched by seventeen women in Karachi, WAF has grown into an amorphous, non-hierarchical umbrella body of national dimensions that brings together numerous organisations — at times over 20 in number — seeking justice for women. Regrettably, as Anis Haroon, a founder member, observed at the 25th anniversary celebration in Karachi last week, the problems they had set out to resolve in 1981 continue to haunt the women of this country even today.
Ironically, at that point in time when WAF was commemorating the two and a half decades of its existence, the government of another general in uniform was busy hobnobbing with the religious parties to decide the fate of the same ordinances that have been responsible for serious miscarriage of justice for thousands of innocent women who have suffered protracted incarceration. As we now know, the government’s manoeuvrings in Islamabad last week, which were projected as an effort to save the Women’s Protection Bill, only helped to throw this piece of legislation into cold storage. The fact is that the government’s policy of seeking the approval of the MMA for the proposed bill amounted to giving a new lease on life to the Hudood ordinances that had given birth to the Women’s Action Forum in the first place.
Initially organised as a body to struggle for women’s rights and lobby for the repeal of the unjust and discriminatory laws that were being enacted in quick succession by the Zia regime, WAF emerged as a powerful pressure group. It challenged the government’s anti-woman policies and made its voice heard against the law of evidence and the Qisas and Diyat laws. It also began taking up various issues of concern to women, ranging from their exclusion from spectator sports to their poor status in the health, education and employment sectors. In the process, WAF also worked to create public awareness about women’s rights and create consciousness in a large number of them that changed their perception of their own role in society and gave a boost to their self-esteem.
WAF’s contribution in giving birth to a nascent women’s movement in the country has been widely — though grudgingly — acknowledged by many. Its impact on national life manifested itself in another way, though this has not been so widely recognised. The Women’s Action Forum radicalised the politics of dissent at a time when General Ziaul Haq ruled the country with an iron fist. His was the darkest period in the history of Pakistan when repressive laws were enacted to curb the freedoms of the citizens. Censorship silenced the press. Brutal punishments such as whipping and flogging, the threats of stoning and the amputation of limbs terrorised the people into abject submission.
Not many summed up the courage to challenge the government’s writ. The state institutions such as the judiciary had already fallen in line and the few individual judges who refused to conform with the military dictator’s wishes were edged out. It was the judiciary that was used to execute an elected prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. His party was paralysed and his wife and daughter were first thrown into prison and then sent into exile. In this scenario, which could have led to widespread despair and despondency, WAF was the only organisation that kept people’s sights trained on the light at the end of the tunnel.
It may not have been as a result of calculated deliberation, but WAF’s success in mobilising women and bringing them out on the streets (even though in modest numbers) and collecting thousands of signatures proved to be a catalyst for politics when the political process was all but dead. Women defied martial law regulations to demonstrate their anger at the discriminatory and anti-women policies of the Zia regime. They broke the ice and soon enough liberal-minded men who supported the struggle for women’s rights and human rights joined hands with WAF.
Initially there was an intense debate in WAF about the causes it should espouse. Since it had started as a body fighting for the repeal of the Hudood ordinances — which by implication amounted to a struggle for women’s rights — it was felt that WAF’s role should be that of a champion of women’s rights. In their book Women of Pakistan: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back? Khawar Mumtaz and Farida Shaheed observe, “... the public became suddenly interested in the political potential of WAF ... [it] was approached by trade unions, politicians and intellectuals who all offered advice on how WAF could be more effective. WAF was urged to form links with various other organisations and groups and work for the restoration of democracy. When WAF refused to act on this advice and continued to confine itself to women’s issues, the level of criticism increased. WAF was accused of playing into the government’s hands by diverting attention from the more serious and basic problem of martial law versus democracy.”
Though WAF chose to be non-political in its structure and functioning and maintained its distance from the political parties, it gradually began adopting a position on issues that did not fall exclusively within the purview of the women’s question. This can be attributed to the close link between women’s problems and politics which cannot be de-linked. This was evident at WAF’s anniversary celebration last week where two women activists — one a labour leader from Balochistan and the other from the Pakistan Fisherfolk’s Forum — spoke of problems that were purely of a political nature.
The former recounted the opposition she had faced from the feudals in her area when she sought re-election because of her contributions to the masses in her constituency. The latter spoke of the travails of the fisherfolk (mainly men) who were not granted licences by the government and were picked up and thrown into Indian prisons when they inadvertently strayed into Indian waters.
Given this thrust, it is not surprising that of the eight resolutions adopted at the anniversary function, six were of a general nature. Thus the demand for the repeal of the Hudood ordinances — endorsed very vociferously by the audience — and an end to practices like swara, vani, karo kari and so on focused on women. But WAF also condemned the new labour laws, demanded an end to the military action in Balochistan, called for provincial autonomy, resolved to strengthen movements for the protection of people’s livelihood and build forces to counter and defeat the forces of globalisation, and opposed violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Palestine, Lebanon and all regions facing militarist aggression.
It is now more than obvious that WAF’s major contribution has been integrating the women’s problem with political issues — a connection that has come to be realised all over the world. Given the fact that women constitute nearly half of the population in every society and the growing recognition of their substantial, though invisible, role in the economy and social development of a people, it is natural that the woman’s perspective has assumed greater importance. But if WAF is to survive, it will have to keep its distance from political parties, many of which would love to have it enter their fold.
Faith in each other
JUST as the scorching Australian sun dries out the bush to the point where the smallest spark can start an uncontrollable inferno, so the perception of a clash of civilisations evaporates goodwill between the faiths until incidents that might once have gone unnoticed can explode right around the world.
The question now is whether the Pope’s citation of an anti-Muslim Byzantine emperor is about to become a case in point. Without disowning any part of last week’s speech, Benedict XVI has expressed sorrow about “the reactions in some countries”. By the time he spoke, however, Molotov cocktails had been thrown at churches in the West Bank, and moves were under way to increase his own security following death threats. His ability to douse the flames was further called into question when an Italian nun was shot in Somalia.
Pessimists can make a powerful case. The aftermath of 9/11 left some westerners falling into the trap of interpreting world events through the prism of a single global struggle against radical Islam. And then Afghanistan, and more particularly Iraq, left many Muslims viewing the West as waging an imperialist crusade, leaving them angry and hyper-sensitive.
The result is a global tinderbox whose capacity to ignite was seen clearly last year in protests after the publication of Danish caricatures of the Prophet of Islam, which after a slow start reached violent heights. A year — and the Lebanon war — have since passed, and today the offender is no mere cartoonist, but the head of the Catholic church. Worse still, there are plenty in the Muslim world with a desire to fan the flames, while the Pope is a known conservative with a maladroit touch, which was seen again on Sunday when, almost unbelievably given the circumstances, he talked about the crucifiction in terms that some are construing as anti-semitic.
With the Vatican claiming a billion Catholics worldwide, and an even larger number of Muslims, prolonged antagonism between these faiths would be a global disaster. Yet for all the dangers, there are stronger grounds for hoping that this can be avoided. For one thing, any Islamist caricature linking the Vatican with George Bush’s war on terror would not stand scrutiny. The Vatican took a principled and firm stand against the Iraq war, and regularly runs up against Washington on a host of other issues. Wiser heads in the Muslim world are well aware of this, and realise that they need to work with the Vatican, which is why, for example, Turkey was on Sunday suggesting that it expects that the Pope can go ahead with his trip there and why the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt moved to accept the apology from the Vatican, in spite of its ambiguous nature.
Doctrinal tensions, too, can be exaggerated. It is hardly surprising that Benedict believes Christianity is superior to other faiths — he would not be Pope if he did not.
—The Guardian, London