Asia-Pacific

The United States, Popular Opinion, and Pakistan

U.S. Alliance with Pakistan Leaves Indian Commentators Uneasy


The voice of the people is the voice of God
Jean Jacques Rousseau

There is a fundamental contradiction in the renewed love fest that the present war against terrorism has contrived between the United States and its old Cold War ally, Pakistan, an anomaly that has missed the sharp analytical brushes of most columnists and commentators in recent months.

The US-Pakistani alliance does not happen to be an alliance of the American and Pakistani people. The amount of mistrust, hostility and venom that Pakistanis spout for Uncle Sam is a ubiquitous and daily observable phenomenon. This animus is not to be confused with pro-Taliban or pro-Osama bin Laden sentiments in Pakistan, which could be argued as the domain of extremists and Islamic fundamentalists, particularly in the madrassas (seminaries) and the provinces bordering Afghanistan who have been outraged at the recent bombing campaign in Afghanistan. What I am referring to is a generic and widely perceived hatred for America, American values and American institutions that is shared by moderates, extremists, peaceniks, warmongers, Punjabis, Sindhis, Pushtuns, Baloch, rich, poor, male, female, young and old. In a country struggling to weave its multiple identities into cohesive nationhood (to use World Bank economist Javed Burki's phrase, "a nation in the making"), the only common emotion that is aired from occupied Kashmir to Karachi is that of anti-Americanism and intense visceral hatred for all things American. It is a more widely shared sentiment than the anti-India and "Kashmir liberation" issues if farsighted intellectuals like Sherbaz Khan Mazari are to be cited.

Why has such a state of affairs come about? Numerous editorials and op-ed columns in leading US dailies have been posing the question- why do "they" hate us so much? I shall not take up the case of the entire Muslim world but stick to Pakistan. First of all, the generation of Pakistanis that has come of youthful age today feels forlorn, jilted and swindled by opportunist America which literally used their country during the Cold War but discarded it like dispensable debris after 1991. The rapid decade-long improvement of US ties with India, South Asia's leading military and economic power, has given rise to a rethinking among Pakistanis that was ignored by opportunistic undemocratic rulers for nearly four decades: why did we barter our independence during the Cold War to later suffer withdrawal symptoms? Why did we not foresee a time when our "special relationship" would be terminated and Washington will start pursuing the more logical policy of befriending the larger, stabler and economically promising India?

Secondly, the appeal of the "rule of shariat/khilafa" has become an increasingly seminal component stoking anti-Americanism among average Pakistanis. As the country tottered from a fitful democracy to a military coup and back again since Zia-ul-Haq's death, the notion of a third way gained ascendance and the Mullahs stepped in to present fanciful constructions of a "true Islamic country" that would follow the prophet's path and cleanse the rot of corruption and venality that both political parties and the Pakistan army have wallowed in. Theocratisation/ Talibanisation has thrived on universal Pakistani jeremiads of the cul de sac-facing future of the country under all those years of "modern" forms of governance and the nostrum of a return to the principles on which the country was conceived, a "land of the pure", Dar-ul-Islam. Since every Islamic revolutionary movement, like the Ayatollah's in Iran, had to identify a prominent hate-target, America became the khilafa-seekers' whipping target, the source of all the debauchery, licentiousness and deracination that had overtaken Pakistan. And since there is already an established tradition of a worldwide Islamic fraternity, Maulana Fazlur-Rehman sought to give the Talibanisers a rallying cry- "Islam is the real superpower", the one with global and heavenly backing as opposed to the one that Satan and the "infidels" have erected - USA.

Virulent anti-Americanism in Pakistan, brimming beyond boiling point since the bombing campaign has begun, must not be ignored by decision-makers in Washington. America is the second largest democracy of the world, where administrations claim to represent the people like nowhere else and where public opinion is theoretically considered a valuable component of foreign policy making. It is worth asking if the people of the US really desire the new alliance with Islamabad that reflects poorly upon the true feelings of the people of Pakistan. Musharraf has no legitimacy or mandate to be worried about what Pakistani people feel about his current Chameleonic volte-face, but should the Bush administration ignore its constituents? In other words, are US administrations free to make friends and foes without taking public opinion into account? During the hazy period straddling the end of World War II and the formal start of the Cold War (1947), Gallup used to conduct accurate and very informative public opinion polls asking Americans how they perceived of Soviet people and the USSR. There is historical evidence to the effect that public opinion was more "led" by the Truman administration's portrayals of the "red menace" rather than "leading" the government through independent judgment. Whatever be the case, my challenge is for Colin Powell to go ahead and quantify for the American populace the so-called "friendliness" of the Pakistani people he is claiming for the US. Let there be an impartial opinion poll how much the American people trust Pakistan's hand of "friendship".

A mere 20 miles from Lahore, across the border, is the antidote. Indian people, across regional, religious and linguistic barriers, are true friends of America and the American value system. I was present in Hyderabad, a city with a very large percentage of Muslims, during Bill Clinton's landmark visit (March 2000) and witness to the spontaneous reaction of people ranging from commoners to VIPs: absolutely ecstatic! Milkmen, grocers, rickshaw pullers and construction labourers queued up along the route that the Presidential itinerary was to take, taking leave from their daily chores, to catch a glimpse of "Clintonji". I asked a bystander, Abdul, a mechanic who absconded from his motor garage work, why he was wasting time when it was unlikely the President would even spot him in the milling crowds lining both sides. He said, he had heard that Americans are great and "most powerful" people who are helping "us", India and Indians. All the highly literate and "smart" people he knew in his neighbourhood were going to America, because they treat "us" with respect and kindness and have a "lot of money" to give. Seduced by capitalism? So be it. Indians have welcomed Soviet-time dignitaries from Bulganin to Gorbachev, goaded by painstaking efforts of governments in Delhi to orchestrate a welcome by smiling school-children waving flags of Indo-Russian bonhomie on either side of the roads. Clinton's visit was uniquely the first in independent India's history when people of all hues and affiliations voluntarily pressed against the restraining security arrangements to extend wholehearted welcomes to a foreign luminary and take a closer glance at the man who represented a country and ideals they genuinely love, a love Clinton confessed was overwhelming him emotionally.

People-to-people contacts and empathies between America and Pakistan have never been qualitatively or quantitatively of any sizeable proportion and have been dealt the coup de grace since 7 October. To use diplomatic jargon, "thick relations" with another country must include a strong cultural basis of friendship and goodwill between the two peoples. The US should redirect its policy from this temporary marriage of convenience with a country that positively detests it and continues to boost its dynamic relationship with India and Indians, who have contributed and shared the "American Dream". This is in keeping with its long-term interests. For 40 years, by self-admission, Washington backed "the wrong horse" in South Asia. If it does not heed its own people and the Indian people and continues to do so even after the Afghan campaign - the rationale for befriending a country with an illegitimate "president" - ends, the conundrum of divergence between public opinion and administration policy will become a great scandal to besmirch American democracy.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Sreeram Chaulia.

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