Voice

A Long Road Ahead in Pakistan

If Obama wants to make progress, he needs to give up on making it overnight.

Last week, Pakistan's foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations. The foreign minister is a glossy, silver-haired gentleman, and he delivered a glossy address lauding the new "Strategic Dialogue" with the United States, his government's commitment to transparency and accountability in the distribution of humanitarian assistance for victims of the epic floods, and so forth. He was asked several terribly polite questions and answered in kind. Then I asked the minister if he worried that his government's lack of capacity and even lack of legitimacy in the eyes of citizens was impeding development. Qureshi blew a gasket. "I really fail to understand what you're trying to say," he shot back, "but I can tell you that there are no capacity issues. The Pakistan Army is working. [The] Pakistan Army is an institution that belongs to the government of Pakistan.… They are working under instructions of an elected government, and that is what it ought to be."

Of course, nobody believes that, not in Washington and not in Islamabad. The response to the floods has confirmed, with a vengeance, both the fecklessness of Pakistan's civilian government and the dominance of the military. Several days ago, the Army chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, in a direct confrontation unprecedented during his tenure, upbraided the country's president and prime minister, supposedly his bosses, over the government's rampant corruption, demanding that they fire several cabinet ministers.

All this raises a question, similar to the question posed by the corruption and incompetence of the Afghan state: What, exactly, does Barack Obama's administration think it can accomplish there?

Although U.S. troops are fighting in Afghanistan, many of Obama's senior advisors see Pakistan as the real prize. Al Qaeda takes shelter there; nothing threatens American national security so much as the prospect of a giant nuclear-armed state overwhelmed by terrorists; and the United States would seem to have a much better shot at establishing stability in Pakistan, a democracy and a longstanding, if wayward, ally. In the middle of the long policy debate of 2009, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said to me, "If I said to you right now, we can send $30 billion a year to Pakistan or $30 billion to Afghanistan, which would you pick? Every goddamn person says, 'Pakistan.' So I say, 'OK, guys, we should be talking about a PakAf policy, not an AfPak policy.'"

In the "Afghanistan and Pakistan Regional Stabilization Strategy" released this January, the White House promised an "enhanced partnership" with Pakistan that would move far beyond the military funding the previous administration provided. The promise of partnership was echoed in the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill, which provides $7.5 billion to Pakistan over five years with the money divided between "high-impact, high-visibility infrastructure programs," humanitarian aid, and "government capacity development."

Those funds have only begun to be disbursed, and the imperative of responding to the flood has temporarily eclipsed long-term goals; but events of recent months have shown how very deep-seated Pakistan's problems are. The floods, though an act of God, were enormously exacerbated by state failure. The national disaster plan, drawn up after the terrible 2005 earthquake, had never been implemented. Squabbling among Pakistan's provinces had blocked the building of a dam on the Indus. And amid the calamity, President Asif Ali Zardari took a trip to Europe, including a widely publicized visit to his French château.

The premise of the George W. Bush administration's highly regarded Millennium Challenge Account was that U.S. assistance would be most effective in countries where the government was at least modestly accountable to its people, made investments in education and health care, practiced economic transparency, and reined in corruption. By those standards, especially in matters of public investment, Pakistan falls way below many much poorer countries. The administration is hardly blind to the fact that Pakistan is incurring the kinds of failures that would disqualify it from receiving Millennium Challenge funds. In a very unusual moment of public criticism, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently told an audience that Pakistan cannot have a tax system in which elites "pay so little it's laughable" and expect "the United States and others to come in and help."

Alexander Thier, an expert on the region who now works at the U.S. Agency for International Development, uses the electricity sector as an example of the problem. He says, "You can build power plants until you're blue in the face," but unless you can deal with the country's "insufficient revenue collection," you won't be able to make much headway. In any case, he points out, $7.5 billion does not go very far in a country as big as Pakistan. Nevertheless, Thier thinks the United States and other donors can use aid to "leverage good governance and reform." Thier also says that the Strategic Dialogue bringing together officials in a dozen areas has "allowed us to encourage the Pakistanis at the national and provincial levels to actually go through the exercise of acknowledging the problems and prioritizing them."

True, there are modest grounds for hope. Shuja Nawaz, director of the Atlantic Council's South Asia Center and a harsh critic of the Pakistani state, says that Zardari has installed a highly competent financial team in Islamabad. But Pakistan's problems are political, not technocratic, and so long as the country continues to be lead by urbanized feudals who stash their wealth in Dubai and London, the deep problems will not be acknowledged and prioritized where it counts. Think how weak U.S. leverage in Afghanistan still remains, despite 100,000 troops and billions in aid, in cases where President Hamid Karzai believes that his essential interests are being threatened. The same is all too likely to prove true in Pakistan. The White House has, of course, already encountered these sharp limits on the military side: Kayani has refused to send his soldiers to fight the Taliban in North Waziristan because those militants are willing to leave Pakistan alone.

Where does this leave U.S. policy? The central lesson that the Bush administration took from 9/11 is that the United States is now menaced more by weak states than by strong ones and thus must find a way to reach inside those places and make them better. Bush's answer to this problem was the Millennium Challenge Account in relatively nonproblematic regions, and the promotion of democracy in the danger zone of the Middle East. The conspicuous failure of democracy promotion has seriously chastened his successor in the White House, but the premise that the United States must build up weak states, above all in the Islamic world, remains central to U.S. national security policy.

The Obama administration has in some ways replaced democracy promotion with counterinsurgency and, more broadly, with a doctrine that focuses on economic and social development as well as the nurturing of democracy. That strategy, as Biden and others predicted, hasn't worked in Afghanistan; the place is just too inhospitable. Indeed, in recent years, idealistically inclined folk -- like me -- have been forced to absorb one painful lesson after another on the limits of America's ability to shape a better world. What if Pakistan is yet another example?

My own answer would be: patience. U.S. aid, advice, and leverage can help bend the trajectory upward in Pakistan, and even in Afghanistan. But it will do so only slowly. Shah Mahmood Qureshi will be long gone by the time Pakistan has a civilian government that is capable and legitimate. The metabolism of state-building or "enhanced partnership" is thus wholly unsuited to the urgency of preventing terrorist attacks. Nor do I think that the sight of U.S. helicopters rescuing Pakistanis from floodwaters will make ordinary people more sympathetic to the U.S. counterterrorism agenda or to the drone strikes along the border. Only a change in policy will do that.

It turns out, alas, that the weak countries that pose a threat to U.S. national security interests are also refractory places disinclined to accommodate U.S. interests. Policymakers should view them as long-term projects and lower their expectations for short-term progress.

AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

Wallowing in Decline

Americans have gone from gloating over their global influence to bemoaning the loss of it. They were wrong then, and they're wrong now.

In Super Sad True Love Story, the novelist Gary Shteyngart imagines a not-very-remote future in which the United States, having giddily spent itself into bankruptcy, falls into the hands of Chinese bankers, who call in their T-bills, precipitating armed warfare and state collapse. The comic apocalypse conjured by Shteyngart, a wry connoisseur of baroque states of decline, induces in the reader a peculiar sense of queasiness: Is that not, in fact, what lies ahead? In a recent column titled "Too Many Hamburgers?" the New York Times' Thomas Friedman offered a particularly stomach-wrenching version of the Spenglerian nightmare, in which America is personified by an overweight and overconfident boy who loses a footrace to a fiercely competitive Chinese kid. Declinism has begun to settle into our bones.

Nothing is foretold, of course. But you wouldn't want to bet the house, or even a sofa set, that the United States will overcome the rampant triviality of its culture, the self-righteousness of its national psyche, or the ideological paralysis of its politics in order to deal with the lack of critical investment, the decline of human capital, the looming tidal wave of entitlement spending, and the like. Another generation of this squandering of national assets, and Americans may find themselves clamoring for Shteyngart's "yuan-pegged dollars."

The United States remains unmatched in economic and military might. It leads because no other country -- and certainly not China -- aspires to the job, much less has the capacity for it. But the United States no longer enjoys the deference paid it only a decade or two ago. And the country has begun to run up against the limits of its resources as international commitments become increasingly mismatched with capacities. American hegemony has thus slipped both in relative and in absolute terms. Less than a decade ago, works like Walter Russell Mead's Power, Terror, Peace, and War celebrated the triumph of "millennial capitalism" and thus of American supremacy; henceforth we will be wallowing in the literature of decline. We should, of course, be as skeptical of this new narrative as we ought to have been of the triumphalist canon that preceded it.

The scholar Michael Mandelbaum has been first out of the gate with The Frugal Superpower: America's Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Age. Mandelbaum argues that the United States suffers not from "imperial overstretch" but from "entitlement overstretch" -- too many promised hamburgers without the ability to pay for them. Leaders will have to impose a foreign-policy diet, cutting out the gratifications of the past couple of decades of reckless abundance. The humanitarian interventions of Somalia and the Balkans "will not be repeated." The same is true of interventions designed to bring democracy to authoritarian states. Even peaceful intervention will come to be seen as an unaffordable luxury: "The enterprise of state-building ... will disappear from the foreign-policy agenda of the United States."

Mandelbaum holds the odd view that from World War II through the end of the Cold War, the United States deployed force to defend itself, and since then has done so in support of "worthy causes all over the planet," whether stopping genocide or promoting democracy in the Middle East. But a cash-strapped leviathan must return to being a status quo power rather than a "philanthropic" one. Here at Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt argues, I think with more plausibility, that the United States has "chosen to do a few things that are very difficult" and has failed, while China has enjoyed the advantage of pursuing self-interest in the most narrow and straightforward fashion. Walt suggests that America stick to what it does best: "deterring large-scale aggression," "brokering peace deals," and "encouraging intelligent liberalization of the world economy."

Post-hegemonic America really sounds like a downer, even if the country doesn't get divvied up among sovereign wealth funds as Shteyngart imagines. Of course, American global deterrence prevented the Cold War from turning into World War III and still provides allies with crucial reassurance. But what the United States also does best is provide the kind of global public goods that status quo powers tend to shrug at: building multilateral institutions, championing liberal norms, and corralling states into collective action on global problems like nuclear nonproliferation. Are these, too, the unaffordable luxuries of our halcyon days?

I suspect that Mandelbaum and Walt are right about transformational undertakings like Iraq and Afghanistan, which have increasingly come to feel like acts of folly, or hubris. (In Shteyngart's novel, the United States has embarked on a catastrophic invasion of Venezuela.) But does the same reasoning apply to the civilian effort -- the state-building effort -- in Pakistan, as Mandelbaum argues? What about, say, the upcoming effort in Southern Sudan: Should the people of that region vote for independence in the referendum next January? Should a superpower living within its straitened means confine itself to encouraging market reform? After all, classic deterrence, which keeps American soldiers quartered all over the globe, is vastly more expensive than state-building. The real question is whether a post-hegemonic United States should continue to try to do the difficult things that do not enjoy a great deal of support from an increasingly agitated and impatient public, but are nevertheless extremely important.

Well, what else is leadership for? President Barack Obama devoted almost half of his speech to the U.N. General Assembly this week to the promotion of democracy and human rights abroad -- the very definition of the "philanthropic" policy that his predecessor so ruinously pursued and upon which the American people seem to have turned their back. China, of course, suffers from no such imperial distractions. But Obama's appeal, unlike George W. Bush's, focused on institutions the United States would support, rather than on American unilateral will and capacity. His administration, he said, would seek to foster civil society organizations around the world; would fund UNDEF, the United Nations' democracy program; and would promote transparency in closed societies. Obama specifically asked the emerging-power democracies to make a comparable pledge. It was a policy that acknowledged the limits -- though not the economic limits -- of American power.

The way I would put the post-hegemonic dilemma is that the United States must leverage the international system to produce outcomes that promote its national security: whether in regard to regulating the global economy, stopping nuclear proliferation, propping up weak states, or promoting democracy and good governance abroad; but that system has become less tractable as America's relative position has slipped. Washington cannot, for example, solve the problem of Iran on its own -- and only through the most lavish effort can it keep other key states in line. Newcomers to the international order like Brazil and Turkey, and above all China, feel they have more to gain than to lose by advancing their own interests when they conflict with Washington's. Yet what choice does the United States have, save navigating this turbulent system and seeking to shape it so that it better serves American ends?

Even more important, would much of the world really welcome a chastened United States which sticks to its knitting, pursues self-interest narrowly defined, and stows away the language of universal values? For a little while, perhaps it would. After all, Washington has committed a multitude of sins in the name of those values. But the celebration would die away soon enough: If the sole superpower won't take up the hard jobs, no one else will either.

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