Lessons from US election

Romney and Obama

The American elections having successfully concluded with the re-election of President Obama to a second term in office, discussion will soon return to our own looming elections and what is at stake. As we prepare to immerse ourselves in the full depths of political rallies and electioneering, we should take a moment to reflect on some things that were said last night in America.

In his speech accepting the office of Presidency for another term, Obama made the following observation about politics in a democracy – even one as old as America’s:

Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated. We have our own opinions. Each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy.

That won’t change after tonight, and it shouldn’t. These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty. We can never forget that as we speak people in distant nations are risking their lives right now just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter, the chance to cast their ballots like we did today.

Obama went on to talk not about the differences between his Democrat supporters and their opponents the Republicans, but the hopes and dreams that they both shared.

Now, we will disagree, sometimes fiercely, about how to get there. As it has for more than two centuries, progress will come in fits and starts. It’s not always a straight line. It’s not always a smooth path.

By itself, the recognition that we have common hopes and dreams won’t end all the gridlock or solve all our problems or substitute for the painstaking work of building consensus and making the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward. But that common bond is where we must begin. Our economy is recovering. A decade of war is ending. A long campaign is now over.

And whether I earned your vote or not, I have listened to you, I have learned from you, and you’ve made me a better president. And with your stories and your struggles, I return to the White House more determined and more inspired than ever about the work there is to do and the future that lies ahead.

These inspiring words could be a clue to what has made America successful – their willingness to keep their commonality in view, even when they disagree. Even more amazing, though, was the reaction of the loser – Mitt Romney. When he was told that he had lost the election, he did not call for his supporters to take to the streets. He did not challenge the outcome in the courts. He picked up the phone and called Obama to congratulate him and said that he prays for Obama’s success.

I have just called President Obama to congratulate him on his victory. His supporters and his campaign also deserve congratulations…This is a time of great challenges for America, and I pray that the president will be successful in guiding our nation.

Then, Romney told his disappointed supporters this:

The nation, as you know, is at a critical point. At a time like this, we can’t risk partisan bickering and political posturing. Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people’s work.

And we citizens also have to rise to the occasion. We look to our teachers and professors, we count on you not just to teach, but to inspire our children with a passion for learning and discovery.

We look to our pastors and priests and rabbis and counselors of all kinds to testify of the enduring principles upon which our society is built: honesty, charity, integrity and family.

We look to our parents, for in the final analysis everything depends on the success of our homes.

We look to job creators of all kinds. We’re counting on you to invest, to hire, to step forward.

And we look to Democrats and Republicans in government at all levels to put the people before the politics.

“Put the people before the politics.” Such a simple message, but one that can mean the difference between years of fighting and years of progress.

Our own national elections will begin soon. We will have the opportunity to choose our own leaders and to make our own future. When all the votes are counted, some of us will be satisified and some of us will be unsatisfied also. But instead of rejecting the outcome if it doesn’t suit our preferences, we should take a lesson from the American elections and in the words of Obama “make the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward” and in the words of Romney “put the people before the politics”.

Political Storms

US President Barack Obama and UK PM David Cameron serving burgersSeeing the photos of US President Barack Obama cooking burgers with UK PM David Cameron reminded me of the way different countries treat their political leaders. While President Obama is in Europe cooking burgers, over 300 Americans have been killed in violent storms that have wrecked the American heart land. But while the nation’s newspapers report on the devastation caused by these storms, they are not blaming Obama.

America’s media is covering both the deadly storms and the President’s trip to the UK, but reports do not include attacks on the American president for not canceling his trips.

American storm affectees

This is much different from the way that we treated our own President Zardari, with former diplomats even criticising him as “distant and disconnected from the people” for not canceling his schedule last summer.

As I was comparing these events in my mind, I could not help but think that for all of our complaints about anti-Pakistan media in the West, it seems at times that we can be our own worst enemies. The world’s most wanted terrorist mastermind is discovered in the shade of Kakul and Taliban militants attack our base in Karachi, and we demand that no questions be asked or criticisms made on the agencies responsible for securing the country. The democratically elected leaders, however, are defamed and accused of everything under the sun with not an ounce of proof and yet we are never satisfied with the quantity of venom that we spit on them. Especially now during this orchestrated campaign to silence any questions about security agencies under a demand for ‘unity’, I cannot help but laugh. The only thing we seem to be united about is being unsatisfied. When we live under dictators, we cry out for democracy. When we win our democracy, we wish for dictators.

Floods and tornados can wreck homes and lives, but it is the political storms that can wreck whole nations.

Redefining Strategic Depth

Redefining Strategic Depth

As President Obama takes a tour to India, lots of opportunistic commentators are making the comment that this is proof that the USA is a friend to India and, therefore, a false ally for Pakistan. The proof in the pudding for these people is that Obama made some remarks about how extremists are still in Pakistan. But this idea that the US cannot be friendly with both India and Pakistan is based on a misdirected mindset that defines Pakistan’s geo-strategic importance only in negatives. We must change this.

The rivalry with neighboring India is deeply rooted in mistrust based on previous acts of aggression, but our defining ourselves in the world community – particularly with the US – as an ‘anti-India’ is based in cold war politics that are no longer relevant. When India decided to take a ‘non-aligned’ stance with regard to the US-Soviet Cold War, there was an opening for Pakistan to become the regional ally of the US side.

But this was a weak entrance to forming a lasting partnership with the superpower. Certainly we provided some security to the Americans during the Cold War era, but India was never really on the verge of being a Soviet satellite. We provided an important avenue for the Americans to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan using jihadi proxies, but even this only brought short-term benefits. By the time the Cold War ended, these reasons for being a close ally of the Americans had expired.

After 9/11, we were able to revive some of this same geo-strategic rationale to renew aid from the US – now as a partner in the fight against Taliban instead of Soviets. But this is still a negative. This is why you see many hard line commentators saying that we have to abandon our reliance on US aid and turn to other regional partners like China because eventually the Americans will have to leave Afghanistan (either winning or losing) and then where will we be?

We should be working to make agreements with all nations – especially those like China with whom we share borders. But we should also be working to establish closer partnerships with superpowers like the US and EU based on positives, not negatives. This nation is not only good for serving as a security checkpoint – we need to look beyond military and security agreements and concentrate more effort on trade and natural resources.

There has been some controversy recently over a contract for foreign companies to work the copper and gold mines of Reko Diq. A controversial article by Shaheen Sehbai (Jang Group) has suggested that there is some conspiracy to defraud the nation of its potential wealth by ‘giving away’ the natural resources.

Shaheen Sehbai says that we should be more like Venezuela when negotiating mining contracts to make sure we maximize our benefits. But this shows just how little Sehbai knows. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s nationalization schemes have actually hurt the long term prospects of their economy.

Export Development Canada, which provides trade finance and risk management services for exporters and investors, said, “The business climate is turbulent and the Chavez administration has been openly hostile toward private capital and foreign direct investment.”

EDC said the Venezuelan’s leader’s “willingness to expropriate businesses and breach contracts is a significant worry for both domestic and foreign-owned businesses.” It said, “Private business is under constant threat, and other sectors impacted by expropriation are petrochemicals, oil services, cement, telecommunications, steel, media and food,” EDC added.

Moody’s ratings agency said, “Venezuela is a wealthy country compared to its peers. But despite this comparative advantage Venezuela remains the only major Latin American country still in recession in 2010, a reflection of haphazard policymaking that has depressed investment and growth.”

The type of economic policy that Shaheen Sehbai is promoting can be considered like alcohol – In the very short term, it makes you feel good, but in the long term it destroys your health.

We should be looking not at Venezuela but at the economy of Indonesia which is another Muslim country with a large mining sector in copper and gold. By following the opposite model of Venezuela and demonstrating that it is a safe place for investment, Indonesia has been able to increase foreign investment by 32 percent.

The BKPM on Sunday announced investment figures from foreign and domestic investors. Foreign and domestic investment came to Rp 149.8 trillion this year through September.

Among notable recipients of foreign funding were the real estate, industrial estate and office- building sector, with $800 million. It was followed by mining ($700 million; 88 projects); transportation, storage and telecommunications ($600 million); foodstuffs ($400 million); and plantations ($300 million).

Shaheen Sehbai and others who are opposing the foreign investment in Reko Diq are doing more than simply promoting backwards economic policies – they are failing to take advantage of an important opportunity to redefine Pakistan’s role in the world as a positive instead of a negative.

Opening Pakistan to more foreign investment is not ‘giving away’ the nation’s wealth. Certainly contracts should be determined in a way that is open and transparent and without corruption. But we are not selling the resources of gold and copper, we are working with international partners who can provide the expertise and resources to be able to transform these resources from dirt to jobs to economic growth. And just as policies of isolation feed on each other and can quickly cut off a country from others, policies of openness help change the perception of a country from ‘failing’ to ‘miracle’.

The Reko Diq mine is one example only. We are situated in a place that makes us strategic for regional security, but also for more positive reasons like natural resources and trade routes. It’s time to stop defining ourselves with negatives that bring short-term agreements and start showing the world the many positive ways that we can be partners in long-term ways. Once we make this shift, our strategic depth will be economic and it will be global. And only then we will truly be secure.

Where Are The Ideas?

We need to put together a foreign aid package for President Obama as a thank you for the billions his government has sent us. Our aid package can contain the political strategies of Zardari that help him, even while unpopular with the intelligentsia, win by polls. Even the PML guys can throw in their own help with some memos on the latest coalition building. And in exchange, we can ask Obama not to send anymore billions, but just a few people with actual policy ideas.

If there’s one thing that our politicians and intellectuals understand too well, it’s politics. My god, everyone in the country not only has an opinion, they are also experts on the subject. If politics was a natural resource that could be exported, we would be the wealthiest nation in the world.

Cyril Almeida makes this point perfectly in Dawn yesterday.

Unfortunately, we’re also one of the poorest nations when it actually comes to some policies for our politicians to enact once we elect them. This is also reflected in Cyril’s column – not by what he says, but what he doesn’t say. For all his exposition on the political strategies in Islamabad, there’s not one single sentence about the policies that might actually do some good for the people who don’t lust to have ‘Mian’, ‘Amir’, ‘MNA’ or ‘Minister’ before their name.

Ayaz Amir says as much in his piece for The News. I do think that he is much to sour in his writing – how can not come away with a stomach ache after reading it? But he does make one or two important points which I would like to draw to your attention.

First, he makes the observation that the media is not actually helping anything. Recently I was watching Shahid Masood’s show and a young woman commented that these TV anchors simply invite people on who they can prod into loud arguments and at the end of the show there is no solution proposed, no recommendations for action – just more yelling.  Here’s how Ayaz Amir characterizes it:

The crisis we face is more serious than we think. It is not just about fuel prices, sugar, inflation in general, or the breakdown of law and order. If it was only this there would still be hope. What we are facing is a bankruptcy of ideas, a governing class – covering the political and military spectrum – that can’t ask the right questions and therefore is in no position to get the right answers.

President Obama has had his comeuppance in the midterm congressional elections. He looks chastened and a bit beaten. The American electorate had a choice and it has exercised it. But what if there was such a moment in Pakistan? What choice would we have? What would be the alternatives on offer? None, because there would be none to begin with. Just more of the same, the past recycled to represent the future. This is a greater crisis than anything on the economic horizon.

Every wakeup call in the morning, when you scan the newspapers, is an invitation to cynicism.

And it is not just TV shows, either. The media gets criticised (though, let me tell you, it doesn’t seem to be getting through their thick skulls) but in a sense why should we expect from our journalists what our own intellectuals can’t even handle?

The spirit of Gen Zia lives on. In a nation that could never claim a shortage of false piety, he raised an entire temple complex to the spirit of hypocrisy. His legacy endures. The Pakistan of today is not cast in the image of Jinnah or Iqbal. The veneer of democracy notwithstanding, it is a tribute to the spirit of Zia. The supremacy of form over substance of which he was the master engineer continues to blight what, without a trace of irony, we call an Islamic Republic.

What should be our charter of economic renewal? Have any books been written on the subject? Are we even seriously debating this issue? Foreigners, and an increasing number of them, come and give us lectures on governance and economic policy and we accept what they say because we have little of our own to add to the narrative or the debate.

I have said before that I am sick to death of all these people clamoring from their TV studios and computer keyboard for some ‘revolution’ without even thinking about what they means or to what end they are revolting. But I will say that this country is desperate for a revolution of ideas.

I think we throw the label ‘intellectual’ around too easily. We have set the bar too low. All you need is some degree and in a county where everything has its price, it is well known that even an impressive sounding degree can be purchased.

But too many of our so-called intellectuals are not thinkers, they are simply parrots who learn to repeat certain catch phrases about hegemony or sovereignty or corruption. They give everyone a headache with their constant squawking until the people are ready to do whatever they say if they will simply shut up!

But this is no way to move a country forward. Jinnah had ideas. Iqbal had ideas. These were men who did not yell at each other about problems, they thought seriously about how to solve them. Where are our ideas now? They cannot have perished with these men. We need thoughtful people to step up to the task and begin a discussion not about politics and personalities, but about ideas.

President Obama to General Kayani: Can You Hear Me Now?

The following article appeared in Huffington Post on 21 October 2010. The author Aparna Pande is a research fellow at the Hudson Institute.

The third round of the US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue is being held this week in Washington, D.C., in the backdrop of domestic political crises, economic woes, terrorist attacks and rumors about an ever-impending coup in Pakistan. In this context President Obama’s unannounced meeting with the Pakistani delegation emphasizing American support for the present civilian government and democracy might be a game-changer.

Rumors have been rife in Islamabad that the present government is so weak, chaotic and ineffective that the military will take over. Such stories have been around for the last two years. Pakistan’s establishment clearly does not like President Asif Ali Zardari, and the elected government is particularly gaffe prone, which feeds the rumor mill, already churning thanks to an essentially anti-Zardari media. The frequency of coup scares is matched only by explanations of why a coup is unlikely. It seems that the Pakistani military and its civilian supporters allow the rumors to flourish in order to put pressure on an iron-willed and stubborn Zardari, while the objective conditions prevent a coup — for now.

Given Pakistan’s history, a military coup is the constant fear of every civilian regime. Ever since Zardari and his Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) took office two years ago, fears of military takeover have surfaced each time the country has faced a crisis situation — especially one that involves civil-military disagreement. This happened in 2008 when the still-new civilian administration tried to wrest control of the Inter-Services Intelligence from the army. The tussle with the judiciary over the reinstatement of Chief Justice Chaudhry in March 2009 led to reports of potential government collapse. The buzz of a potential coup was also there during the intense and fractious debates and uproar in the National Assembly over the Kerry-Lugar bill of 2009, but little materialized.

There’s no doubt that the civilian government is weak — every civilian government in Pakistan over the last 63 years has been, not least because the military-technocratic establishment has rarely allowed these governments to build themselves or to push the envelope on key policies. But it is also true that the PPP-led government has not been able to get its act together. The administration shows its inexperience in governance.

The present civilian government resembles some of the weak coalition governments in India during the 1990s, which were led by politicians with limited governance experience. The Zardari government also lacks a serious communication strategy. While it is constantly being spun against, it is rarely able to put forth its own views. The Pakistani media often buys into the military’s whisper campaigns while the political parties hostile to the PPP have much stronger media management. Add to that Zardari’s personal battles with some leading media figures, and his ability to get away with anything without a media flare up is next to none.

We do, however, need to bear a few things in mind. President Zardari derives strength from the fact that he has the support of his party (as co-chairman of the PPP), and the more he is threatened — by the media or by rivals — the stronger he becomes within the party, which views itself as a party of martyrs. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani is a Zardari loyalist. Even though he is de facto ruler (after implementation of the 18th Amendment to Pakistan’s constitution took away executive authority from the office of president), there is little chance that he will drop his support for Zardari, as Mr. Gilani has very little support independent of the president.

Circumstances are such that there is little likelihood of a direct military takeover — a “hard” coup — for the time being. And General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Chief of Army Staff, is not the kind of general who would instigate a coup. The army is still smarting from the impact of the Musharraf era, and all rungs of the army are keenly aware of the growing resentment among the people about the army’s privileges. As of now the army would prefer to have a weak and ineffective civilian government in power that takes all the blame with the army as puppet-master holding all the strings.

Even former army chief and dictator Pervez Musharraf, in a recent interview, spoke out against coups. According to Musharraf, while it is customary in Pakistan during times of “turmoil” to “look to the army,” he believes that “the times of military coups in Pakistan are over. The latest political developments have shown that the Supreme Court has set a bar on itself not to validate a military takeover.” In earlier times, whether under Ayub or Zia, the Supreme Court normally justified coups under the doctrine of necessity.

General Kayani is also interested in rebuilding and professionalizing Pakistan’s army. Over the last three years Kayani has brought about quiet changes within his organization. He has replaced the majority of Corps Commanders who had been appointed by his predecessor, General Musharraf, with his own men. Kayani’s bête noire, Gen. Tariq Majeed, Chief of Joint Staff, was recently retired and replaced with a general more amenable to Kayani.

Cleaning up the intelligence services has also taken place too slowly over the last two years. Kayani now fully controls intelligence operations, and though the army did not allow the civilian government to wrest control of the intelligence services, ISI, Kayani has introduced changes himself. The political wings of both the ISI and the military intelligence, MI, have been closed. General Pasha, head of ISI, also appears to have played a key role in these developments.

The second largest party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), is mainly a Punjab-based party with very little support in the other three provinces in the country. While Nawaz Sharif has a higher popularity rating than Zardari, there is a low probability of the army replacing Zardari with Sharif. After all, it was Sharif who had tried to curb the power of the army, which instigated the 1999 coup by Pervez Musharraf. A popular Sharif with a Punjabi power base would threaten the military’s domination of Pakistani decision-making far more than an unpopular Zardari.

Rumors have also focused on the possibility of a “soft” coup through the judiciary. President Zardari and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court do not see eye to eye, and the latter’s attempts to revive the Swiss cases and deprive the president of constitutional immunity are seen as reflecting Justice Chaudhry’s animosity towards Zardari. While there is very little chance of Zardari losing his immunity, he appears to have planned for that possibility. If forced to resign, the constitution provides that he be replaced by the Chairman of the Senate, Farooq Naek. A Zardari loyalist, Naek served as the president’s personal lawyer when Zardari faced criminal charges from 1997 to 2007.

The final possibility often floated is for Chaudhry and Zardari to both step down. However, though this action would likely bring Chaudhry’s career to an end, and it would only boost Zardari’s image and popularity as a martyr both amongst his party and the public.

Terrorism continues to threaten Pakistan, the economy is still weak and the growth rate is currently at 2.5 to 3 percent, barely equal to population growth. The floods that hit Pakistan last month have devastated one-fifth of its landmass, displaced around 20 million and killed more than 1,600 people. Never in Pakistan’s history has the army ever taken over in a situation like this. The military would much rather let the civilian government take the rap for problems that defy solution instead of taking over power and letting the civilians become martyrs.

In addition to internal factors, all political players in Pakistan have looked to see what the American government’s attitude would be towards a soft or hard coup in Pakistan. The main reason for this is that America has been Pakistan’s major benefactor — mainly in economic and military arenas — since 1954. While in earlier times the American administrations have been seen as more interested in stability than democracy, the current administration has made it clear in the last two years that it values democracy and civilian supremacy in Pakistan. President Obama decision to drop by unannounced to the Roosevelt Room where the Pakistani delegation was in talks with its American counterparts reflects this policy. Addressing a group that included Foreign Minister S.M. Qureshi as well as army chief Ashfaq Kayani, President Obama stated his government’s commitment and support to Pakistani democracy. Further, the President also extended an invitation for President Zardari to visit Washington and announced his own trip to Pakistan in 2011.

For now it seems that the domestic situation in Pakistan is going to continue as before — a weak civilian government attempting to deal with serious threats amid widespread disaffection. The government is going to keep limping along, trying to restore its presence in flood-affected areas, rebuild the economy and face the daily challenges in the National Assembly, all the while fighting extremists. As of now, Pakistan has few alternatives.