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Secretary Doomsday and the Empathy Gap
The Everyday Extremism of Washington
By Tom Engelhardt
A front-page New York Times headline last week put the matter politely indeed: "In Pakistan, U.S. Courts Leader of Opposition." And nobody thought it was strange at all.
In fact, it's the sort of thing you can read just about any time when it comes to American policy in Pakistan or, for that matter, Afghanistan. It's just the norm on a planet on which it's assumed that American civilian and military leaders can issue pronunciamentos about what other countries must do; publicly demand various actions of ruling groups; opt for specific leaders, and then, when they disappoint, attempt to replace them; and use what was once called "foreign aid," now taxpayer dollars largely funneled through the Pentagon, to bribe those who are hard to convince.
Last week as well, in a prime-time news conference, President Obama said of Pakistan: "We want to respect their sovereignty, but we also recognize that we have huge strategic interests, huge national security interests in making sure that Pakistan is stable and that you don't end up having a nuclear-armed militant state."
To the extent that this statement was commented on, it was praised here for its restraint and good sense. Yet, thought about a moment, what the president actually said went something like this: When it comes to U.S. respect for Pakistan's sovereignty, this country has more important fish to fry. A look at the historical record indicates that Washington has, in fact, been frying those "fish" for at least the last four decades without particular regard for Pakistani sensibilities.
In a week in which the presidents of both Pakistan and Afghanistan have, like two satraps, dutifully trekked to the U.S. capital to be called on the carpet by Obama and his national security team, Washington officials have been issuing one shrill statement after another about what U.S. media reports regularly term the "dire situation" in Pakistan.
Of course, to put this in perspective, we now live in a thoroughly ramped-up atmosphere in which "American national security"—defined to include just about anything unsettling that occurs anywhere on Earth—is the eternal preoccupation of a vast national security bureaucracy. Its bread and butter increasingly seems to be worst-case scenarios (perfect for our 24/7 media to pounce on) in which something truly catastrophic is always about to happen to us, and every "situation" is a "crisis." In the hothouse atmosphere of Washington, the result can be a feeding frenzy in which doomsday scenarios pour out. Though we don't recognize it as such, this is a kind of everyday extremism.
Being Hysterical in Washington
As the recent release of more Justice Department torture memos (which were also, in effect, torture manuals) reminds us, we've just passed through eight years of such obvious extremism that the present everyday extremity of Washington and its national security mindset seems almost a relief.
We naturally grasp the extremity of the Taliban—those floggings, beheadings, school burnings, bans on music, the medieval attitude toward women's role in the world—but our own extremity is in no way evident to us. So Obama's statement on Pakistani sovereignty is reported as the height of sobriety, even when what lies behind it is an expanding "covert" air war and assassination campaign by unmanned aerial drones over the Pakistani tribal lands, which has reportedly killed hundreds of bystanders and helped unsettle the region.
Let's stop here and consider another bit of news that few of us seem to find strange. Mark Lander and Elizabeth Bumiller of the New York Times offered this tidbit out of an overheated Washington last week: "President Obama and his top advisers have been meeting almost daily to discuss options for helping the Pakistani government and military repel the [Taliban] offensive." Imagine that. Almost daily. It's this kind of atmosphere that naturally produces the bureaucratic equivalent of mass hysteria.
In fact, other reports indicate that Obama's national security team has been convening regular "crisis" meetings and having "nearly nonstop discussions" at the White House, not to mention issuing alarming and alarmist statements of all sorts about the devolving situation in Pakistan, the dangers to Islamabad, our fears for the Pakistani nuclear arsenal, and so on. In fact, Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landy of McClatchy news service quote "a senior U.S. intelligence official" (from among the legion of anonymous officials who populate our nation's capital) saying: "The situation in Pakistan has gone from bad to worse, and no one has any idea about how to reverse it. I don't think 'panic' is too strong a word to describe the mood here."
Now, if it were the economic meltdown, the Chrysler bankruptcy, the bank stress tests, the potential flu pandemic, or any number of close-to-home issues pressing in on the administration, perhaps this would make some sense. But everyday discussions of Pakistan?
You know, that offensive in the Lower Dir Valley. That's near the Buner District. You remember, right next to the Swat Valley and, in case you're still not completely keyed in, geographically speaking, close to the Malakand Division. I mean, if the Pakistani government were in crisis over the deteriorating situation in Fargo, North Dakota, we would consider it material for late night jokesters.
And yet, in the strange American world we inhabit, nobody finds these practically Cuban-Missile-Crisis-style, round-the-clock meetings the least bit strange, not after eight years of post-9/11 national security fears, not after living with worst-case scenarios in which jihadi atomic bombs regularly are imagined going off in American cities.
Keep in mind a certain irony here: We essentially know what those crisis meetings will result in. After all, the U.S. government has been embroiled with Pakistan for at least 40 years and for just that long, its top officials have regularly come to the same policy conclusions—to support Pakistani military dictatorships or, in periods when civilian rule returns, pour yet more money (and support) into the Pakistani military. That military has long been a power unto itself in the country, a state within a state. And in moments like this, part of our weird extremism is that, having spent decades undermining Pakistani democracy, we bemoan its "fragility" in the face of threats and proceed to put even more of our hopes and dollars into its military. (As Strobel and Landy report, "Some U.S. officials say Pakistan's only hope, and Washington's, too, at this stage may be the country's army. That, another senior official acknowledged Wednesday, 'means another coup.'")
In the Bush years, this support added up to at least $10 billion, with next to no idea what the military was doing with it. Another $100 million went into making that country's nuclear-weapons program, about which there is now such panic, safer from theft or other intrusion, again with next to no idea of what was actually done with those dollars. And now the Obama administration is rushing to create a new Pakistan Counterinsurgency Capability Fund that will be controlled by General David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command. If Congress agrees—and in this panic atmosphere, how could it not?—there will be an initial rushed down payment of $400 million to train the Pakistani military, probably outside that country, in counterinsurgency warfare. ("The fund would be similar to those used to train and equip Iraqi and Afghan soldiers and police, Petraeus said.")
Oh, and speaking of extremism, the ur-extreme statement of the last few weeks came from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and was treated like the most ho-hum news here. In congressional testimony, she insisted that the situation in Pakistan—that Taliban thrust into Swat and the lower Dir Valley—"poses a mortal threat to the security and safety of our country and the world."
Umm... Okay, the situation is unnerving—certainly for the Pakistanis, the large majority of whom have not the slightest love for the Taliban, have opted for democracy and against military dictatorship with a passion, and yet strongly oppose the destabilizing American air war in their borderlands. It could even result in the fall of the elected government or of democracy itself—not exactly a rare event in the annals of recent Pakistani history. It's undoubtedly unnerving as well for the American military, intent on fighting a war in Afghanistan that has spilled disastrously across the open border. (As Pakistan expert Anatol Lieven wrote recently: "The danger to Pakistan is not of a Taliban revolution, but rather of creeping destabilization and terrorism, making any Pakistani help to the U.S. against the Afghan Taliban even less likely than it is at present.")