Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Shooting from the hip : Pakistan and the U.S. election season

November 17, 2011

It’s rarely a nice thing for a foreign country to figure high in a U.S. presidential election campaign. If it is China, it is more likely to be about currency and trade disputes with Beijing, and how each of the candidates was going to tackle it than any bouquets. Or if it is Iran, you can be sure there would be some shooting from the hip as each candidate seeks to outbid the other in trying to convince voters he or she means business with the perceived threat from that country’s nuclear programme.

And so if you were a Pakistani, last weekend’s Republican presidential debate would be just as worrisome even though you know this is election season and candidates are given to competitive sabre rattling. The country was mentioned 55 times in the debate in South Carolina, notes Sadanand Dhume in a piece on The Enterprise blog. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the leading candidate, said Pakistan was nearly a failed state with multiple centres of power  including  a weak civilian leadership and a powerful military.

 Texas governor Rick Perry suggested cutting U.S. aid to Pakistan to zero because it was putting American lives in jeopardy and the Newt Gingrich   pulled few punches either, criticising the country for hosting Osama bin Laden “for at least six years in a military city within a mile of their national defence university.”

Another candidate couldn’t decide whether Pakistan was an enemy or a friend, which itself is quite telling in the way the country where Osama bin Laden was found living in relative comfort ten years after the Sept 11 attacks is perceived in America. Quite a far cry from the time President George W. Bush had trouble recalling the name of Pakistan’s military ruler Pervez Musharaf during his election campaign.  But that was before the attacks in New York and Washington and from then on the focus turned to Afghanistan where bin Laden was initially holed up and to Pakistan later.

A lot of the tough-talk has to be seen as part of the election season as we said before, but equally its hard to dismiss the statements altogether  because any one of these candidates could be the next commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful military.  Even more so, you have to consider the impact of the steadily escalating campaign rhetoric on the incumbent administration.  Its clearly harder for President Barack Obama to strike a conciliatory note with regard to Pakistan, even if the situation arises, in such an atmosphere when his opponents are turning up the heat.  Some people are already seeing it insofar as China is concerned, attributing Obama’s exhortations last weekend that it should behave as a grown-up economy to political posturing aimed at weary voters.

Candidates are only reflecting what they think are voter concerns and if the polls are any indication they are reading the mood right. A recent Rasmussen poll found that 40 percent of Americans consider Pakistan to be America’s enemy, according to Pakistan’s ambassador Hussain Haqqani. 

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