Shadow Government

What Fareed Zakaria gets right -- and wrong -- on Obama's Pakistan policy

I find Fareed Zakaria always intriguing even, or perhaps especially, when I am not fully persuaded by his argument. Today, he writes:

President Obama gets much credit for changing America's image in the world -- he was probably awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for doing so. But even devoted fans would probably say it is too soon to cite a specific foreign policy achievement. In fact, there is a place -- crucial to U.S. national security -- where Obama's foreign policy is working: Pakistan.

I agree more or less with all four claims in that opening paragraph: Obama deserves credit for improving America's image; image is the only plausible justification for giving Obama the Nobel prize; Obama's foreign policy achievements have been sparse thus far; and the results and prospects in Pakistan are less gloomy than one might have predicted a year ago. However, the Pakistan claim is the dodgiest of those claims and I am only partially persuaded by Zakaria's reasoning.

Zakaria argues that success (so far) in Pakistan is due to four factors, three of which he credits to the Obama team:

1) Obama properly recognized that prospects in Afghanistan are linked to Pakistan and dramatized this fact by referring to the problem as the Af-Pak problem.
2) Obama used sticks and carrots to pressure Pakistan: sticks in the form of outreach to Pakistan's rival, India; carrots in the form of massive aid.
3) Obama has put in time and effort, specifically a "whole of government" approach to Pakistan.
4) Obama got lucky because the militants over-reached in Pakistan with their brutality.

My problem with this argument is that all of these factors, except perhaps the "AfPak" label and luck (!), pre-date the Obama administration by some margin. 

  • The Bush team saw Afghanistan and Pakistan as linked, indeed the very first move after 9/11 was sending Deputy Secretary Armitage to Pakistan to threaten Musharraf to get on-side; ever since, the Afghanistan and Pakistan policy lines have been intertwined.  The problem was that sometimes this meant that progress on one line led to progress on the other but just as often it meant that a set-back on one line led to a set-back on the other.
  • The Bush team used sticks and carrots with Pakistan, indeed the very same sticks and carrots of outreach to India and generous aid to Pakistan. 
  • The Bush team likewise devoted considerable time and effort to Pakistan and tried the same whole of government approach.
  • The militants certainly over-reached in Pakistan and have been over-reaching for quite a long time.  The one difference is that Bush was unlucky, in the form of a mostly unrelated over-reach by Musharraf when he challenged his Supreme Court Justice Chaudhry back in 2007.

It is possible that Obama has tweaked the mix of these policies just right and this has produced better results.  It is more possible that simply the steady accumulation of continuing basically the same things has produced more progress.  And it is perhaps most possible that the critical ingredients distinguishing between progress and reversals is the adoption of the McChrystal surge strategy in Afghanistan, good luck, and circumstance.

Consider this: if the situation in Pakistan was worsening, there would be plenty of explanatory factors available to blame.  First, just as Bush was stuck with the compromised Musharraf regime as partner, Obama is stuck the equally but differently compromised Zardari regime as partner.  Second, numerous bureaucratic snafus have largely hobbled the "whole of government" effort.  Third, the way the Pakistani aid package was, well, packaged produced a sharp backlash in Pakistan -- it is hard to know whether to code this a carrot or a stick or a poisoned carrot. Fourth, the tortuous Afghan Strategy Review 2.0 and the botched roll-out provided as much confusion as clarification in the region, at least initially.

In short, it seems it would be no harder to explain a lack of progress as it is to explain progress. Under the circumstances, a modified version of the old Scot verdict, "not yet proven," seems warranted.

To be fair, Zakaria duly caveats the Pakistan argument.  One cannot accuse him of naïve boosterism on this issue.  Indeed, he closes with a warning against naïve optimism on Pakistan and warns the Obama administration that relations with Pakistan are like running on a treadmill: "If you stop, you move backward -- and most likely fall down." He may be more right than he realized: it could be like running on a treadmill in that you can be doing the right things for a very long time and at great effort and still not appear to be any closer to your final objective.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

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