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Clueless in D.C.

Updated June 18, 2016


WHEN we have tense relations with three of our four neighbours, clearly our foreign policy cannot be deemed to be a brilliant success.

As a further mark of its abject failure, we have been unable to sustain good relations with our principal benefactor and the world’s sole superpower, the United States. The goal of any foreign policy is to maintain good ties with neighbours; to promote security and trade; and to enhance the country’s image abroad.

By all these measures, successive governments since the 1980s have failed. Even when 9/11 gave us a chance to rehabilitate ourselves in the world’s eyes, we chose to continue using jihadists and mercenary militants as proxies to further our agenda in Kashmir and Afghanistan.

One problem elected governments have faced in implementing a consistent foreign policy rooted in national self-interest is that over the years, the military has succeeded in wresting effective control of its direction and goals. And as we know, our generals view the world exclusively through the prism of the perceived threat from India.

Being without a lobbyist in the US has not helped us.

Thus, they have torpedoed Nawaz Sharif’s earlier attempts to promote trade with our neighbour, as well as India’s and Afghanistan’s request for overland transit. This has inevitably led to an Indo-Iranian deal for Indian access to Afghanistan via the Iranian port of Chabahar. Talk about own goals.

Another problem in fashioning a coherent foreign policy is Pakistan’s evolution into a security state. When we see threats everywhere, we lose sight of opportunities. There was a brief window, shortly after 9/11, when we could have cooperated wholeheartedly with the US in crushing the Afghan Taliban. This would have reduced the threat of the militancy that subsequently took root in our tribal areas.

Examine: Love US, hate US

By playing the ‘good Taliban’, ‘bad Taliban’ game that allowed groups including the Haqqani network to set up bases on our soil and use them to attack targets in Afghanistan, we have ended up with a lethal home-grown threat, as well as strained relations with Washington. So when we are unable to obtain the F-16s we sought from America, we know the reason.

Our other current gripe with the US is that country’s support for Indian admission to the Nuclear Suppliers Group. This, our Foreign Office argues, would tilt the strategic balance in India’s favour. We also resent the continuing American pressure to rein in our growing nuclear arsenal.

But we forget that these concerns spring from our past record of nuclear proliferation. After A.Q. Khan confessed to selling designs and equipment to Iran, Libya and North Korea, nobody believed the official line that he was acting alone. To demand admission to the NSG after this murky episode is to live in cloud cuckoo land.

Most countries base their foreign policy on self-interest. In Pakistan, apart from an overwhelming security dimension, ideology is also a dominant factor. Thus, while we rightly support the Palestinian cause, for example, we refuse to see that unnecessarily making an enemy of Israel weakens our case in Washington. Arab states, on the other hand, deal with Israel both formally and informally in their self-interest.

For some bizarre reason, this government has discontinued the practice of hiring a lobbying firm in Washington. When I worked at our embassy in the US capital in 1989-90, we dealt closely with Mark Siegel’s firm. Though he was a controversial figure in Pakistan due to his close friendship with Benazir Bhutto, the fact is that he had very close links with the Democrats, and counted many journalists among his friends. Our embassy received detailed reports on the thinking in Con­gress, as well as on media coverage of Pakistan.

American law permits paid professionals to lobby lawmakers on behalf of states, corporations and individuals. These lobbyists are often ex-congressmen and retired civil servants who know how the system works, and are often on first-name terms with key congressional committee members. These players are wined and dined by lobbyists at Washington’s best restaurants, and if the budget permits, are invited to expensive jaunts to regions where clients have an interest. If this sounds like institutionalised corruption, that’s exactly what it is.

Tariq Fatemi, the prime minister’s special assistant on foreign affairs, has worked in Washington and knows how the system there works. So the absence of a lobbyist is doubly surprising. Nawaz Sharif, despite his insistence on retaining the foreign minister’s portfolio, is generally clueless about international relations, so his decision not to appoint a lobbyist displays his insecurity. According to a report in this newspaper, he shot down a proposal from GHQ because he feared the lobbyist would promote our military in Washington.

Given this paranoia and our many hang-ups, it should surprise nobody that our foreign policy is such a mess. Ultimately, no diplomat or lobbyist can successfully market a bad product.

Published in Dawn, June 18th, 2016