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Monday, March 7, 2011

Missteps and Misperceptions

By Tariq Fatemi
The Obama administration’s oft-repeated claim that US-Pakistan understanding and cooperation had graduated to a level where it could be described as a ‘strategic relationship’, never carried much conviction in either capital. The Raymond Davis case has confirmed the limitations of our ties to Washington.
While some in Pakistan are distressed at the way this ‘cause célèbre’ has impacted on our relations, it holds important lessons for both countries which are equally guilty of missteps, arising out of misperceptions that do no credit to either.

There is no doubt that Islamabad mishandled what should have been a routine case. Instead of taking a stand, based on law and supported by irrefutable documentary evidence, the government sought to ‘please’ Washington. When Lahore refused to play along with this ‘charade’, it tried to score brownie points with the Americans by accusing the provincial government of being unhelpful. It next tried to browbeat its own foreign minister to get him to ‘doctor’ the documents. When the minister showed admirable integrity, it retreated into parroting what everyone had been saying from day one — namely that while criminal charges would have to be decided by the court of law, Davis’s diplomatic status could only be determined by the foreign ministry.
Washington’s own conduct was neither helpful, nor competent. By giving conflicting statements and then seeking to withhold important information about Davis’s status and role, it destroyed both its legal brief as well as its moral position. Next, Washington made the mistake of demonstrating continuing allegiance to great power arrogance coupled with ignorance — characteristics so very evident during the Bush administration. In fact, it was not till Senator Kerry showed in Pakistan what a perceptive politician he is, by toning down the rhetoric and expressing regret at the incident, that Washington appeared to realise the futility of endless demands.
There is no doubt that, had US officials been contrite in their comments and refrained from threats, public outrage would have been less and the atmosphere more conducive to an understanding on the case. As if this was not enough, the US refused to even respond to five official requests for information about the official whose vehicle had crushed to death an innocent motorcyclist. To add insult to injury, he was later moved surreptitiously back to DC!
US behaviour  in  the aftermath of the Davis episode not only belies claims of a ‘strategic relationship’, but confirms that little has changed in Washington, notwithstanding Obama’s protestations about wanting a relationship of mutual trust and mutual respect with Pakistan. What is even more disappointing is that Washington appears oblivious of the fact that no elected government in Islamabad, however much it may wish to, can behave the way the Musharraf regime did, especially with a vibrant media and an independent judiciary watching hawklike over developments here. Islamabad was also naïve to think that it could get Punjab on board what was clearly an illegal and risk-fraught move.
Nevertheless, both sides now need to cool down and refrain from statements such as Secretary Clinton’s, that there is alleged “shocking and unjustified anti-Americanism” in Pakistan by those in this country who seek to whip up popular sentiments on the pretext of “honour and dignity”.  Instead, there is a need for both to initiate an immediate damage-limitation exercise, since bilateral understanding and cooperation is not only advantageous to both, but critical as Afghanistan enters the endgame. Once the dust has settled down, both sides need to renegotiate their ‘terms of engagement’, to introduce much needed transparency, since what was possible in the past is no longer sustainable. The US, too, would do well to seek friendship with the Pakistani people, while recognising the folly of making unilateral demands that weaken democratic dispensations and ridicule its institutions. Recent events in the Arab world have demonstrated what an explosive mix economic deprivation and national humiliation can be!
Published in The Express Tribune, March 2nd, 2011.

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