An Advent Calendar of Optimism

In a year of turbulent change, there are, in fact, a few ways to look at recent developments and still be hopeful.

It's the season of secular expressions of joy and wrapping paper (as my Mother likes to call it). In my house, we have put up our Chanukkah Bush and decorated it with twinkling blue and white lights, tiny dreidels, and otherwise religion-free ornaments reflecting an admittedly superficial but nonetheless upbeat desire to whoop it up along with everyone else. As is the case every year, high atop the tree we have placed a metallic green frog which symbolizes ... well, amphibians for one thing. And on our mantel we have hung our artisanal stockings, made, it seems, from bits and pieces of designer clothing, in the hopes that the Chanukkah Chicken will soon fill them with gift cards. He will do this, oddly enough, on Christmas Eve, at which time there will be much wassailing, or, as was the case last night during our tree decorating ceremonies, there will be drinking of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale while listening to the Smiths. Merry Morrissey everybody!

In this spirit of confused, non-denominational good cheer, it is appropriate that we take a moment to set aside our usual pessimism and worries and seek out that which is best and most hopeful in the world. It's out there, you know. You can see it in the eyes of young children and in the long lines of people waiting at gas station cash registers to buy their pre-Xmas Powerball tickets. But you can also find that sense of optimism in your newspapers and in your Twitter feed. This old world's not doing so badly. People live longer, eat better, are better educated, and have higher standards of living than ever before. There are no world wars. The threat of global thermonuclear catastrophe is much less than it was when I was growing up and we were all being taught how to huddle under our desks in anticipation of being incinerated. (Thanks for that, "Greatest Generation.")

Indeed, in every dark headline that normally would have you popping antacids like they were candy, there is a silver lining. In fact, there are so many ways to look at recent developments with optimism that we could fashion out of them our own Foreign Policy advent calendar: 25 stories which, when you open the little door and look inside them, contain at least one tiny, sparkling, glimmer of hope.

Adrean Rothkopf

So, let's try it (in no particular order): 

The Koreas -- Ding dong Jong Il is dead. Not that I wish the poor guy ill. Especially since he's already dead. I'm sure he was a great husband to his several wives and a fun-loving dad to his children. But he also brought unspeakable misery to his people and made the world a considerably more dangerous place. So his departure is not a bad start. And, if his son is really as unprepared as he seems, and China really wants to avoid chaos on its borders and economic upheaval in the region that could be destabilizing across the PRC, the Chinese may help orchestrate gradual reforms in the North. If that works, it would make North Korea more peaceful. And, who knows, with a little luck the whole house of cards could come down. With Korean reunification, the South's economic miracle could spread north and we could have another major economy brewing in northeast Asia.

Bad Year for Bad Guys -- In the same vein, we can wring our hands about the departure of all those devils we knew or, just for a moment, we can observe that getting rid of so many terrorists and despots in one year is a good thing. We don't know for sure ... and there sure have been worrisome signs from Egypt to North Korea ... but given how bad some of these characters were, the odds would suggest that some of them are likely to be replaced by people or situations that represent an improvement. We could have something more democratic evolving in the Arab world. We could be weakening entrenched, corrupt elites. We could be seeing positive changes. And, at Christmas time, let's just hope for a moment that we are.

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Chinese Political Reform -- We've got a leadership change coming in Beijing, and usually that means a burst of conservatism. But in today's China we're seeing something new -- open jockeying among political leaders that amounts to something like a campaign for public support, more ferment on the Internet, more expressions of outrage at government mismanagement, experiments in local democracy, and even a city left without central leadership for a bit. It's not yet a revolution ... but is it too early to start hoping we are seeing something like a democratic evolution in China, slow though it may be?

The Emergence of Arab Democracy -- Again, we're a long way from Jeffersonian ideals taking root in the local souks, but it goes without saying that there has never been a year like 2011 in the Arab world. Fed by the changes ushered in by pioneers like those at Al Jazeera and the onset of social networking in the region, fueled by the corruption and cluelessness of aging, repressive regimes, a new social contract is being written in the Mideast. Ironically -- or perhaps inevitably -- it's not being fueled by America's efforts to impose democracy on Iraq (a country headed in the wrong direction right now, it seems). Rather this homegrown version of representative government may produce completely new phenomena -- like Islamist democracy. We in the West may find it hard to deal with ... and local elites may find it even tougher to swallow ... but it's not our call. If we believe in principles of self-determination, we need to support them even when it's not easy to do. And if we do ... well, 2011 may ultimately live up to the hope it triggered.

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Eurozone Strengthening -- It is understandable if you feel this is a bit of a stretch. Seldom in the many centuries of really bad European leadership have we seen a group of political smurfs as small and hapless as the current crew with their hands on the tiller ... or, rather, around the throat ... of the European economy. But here's the upside: If the European Union survives, it will only do so because it has strengthened itself institutionally, reframed the European Central Bank's mandate, embraced sounder fiscal policies, created real fiscal enforcement mechanisms, and bought into the indivisibility of the union. So, for the European Union, this could definitely be one of those "that which does not kill us makes us stronger" moments.

U.S. Economy -- Among all the optimistic scenarios here, this is one of the more likely ones. Despite our own contingent of Washington-based smurfs doing almost everything possible to screw things up, America may be saved by the rest of the world. Even in the best-case scenario, the European Union is heading for a slowdown. Emerging markets are, too. Where does the world's cash go? To the U.S. safe haven. And our numbers are creeping up; even the housing market seems to have found a bottom. The dollar has got to strengthen, and investors have already seen that America is stronger than its political system -- we can survive our "leadership." So, things may just be turning around for us here. (And imagine what would happen if, for some reason, D.C. had just a moment of clarity, embraced Simpson-Bowles, eliminated all the Bush tax cuts, harnessed new American energy resources, reformed immigration to welcome the world's best and brightest to our shores again, and invested more in people and infrastructure than military supremacy. The economy and America's standing would grow like a rocket!

Wow. Too much Eggnog. Must slow down.

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U.S. Election -- This one looks likely too. Slow-and-steady Mitt wins the GOP contest, giving the Republicans their best shot at victory. He and Obama engage in serious debates on substantive choices America faces. The extremists are on the sidelines and the focus is on fixing our economy. No matter who wins, all Americans win.

Israel-Palestine -- The true test of any exercise in optimism is whether we can find hope in this perennial problem area. But what if Hamas really does renounce violence? What if the collapse of Assad weakens Iran's influence with the Palestinians? What if the Palestinians seem to focus more on governance? What if Bibi recognizes that his window of election-induced support in the United States ends soon and America's involvement in the region is dwindling and his demographic threats at home are growing and the regional landscape is changing in unfavorable ways, spurring him to cut a deal sooner rather than later? Or, better yet, what if he gets forced out of office by someone more reasonable? Change for the better is possible here too.

Egypt-Turkey -- This could be an axis of power that supplants the Saudis as the leading "moderate" alternative in the region. It could offset the Iranian influence, especially if it plays a constructive role in engineering the final ouster of Assad. It could promote democracy and economic growth. And, despite all fears to the contrary, it is worth remembering that Turkey and Egypt were the region's big powers that actually found a way to work with Israel. The drift recently has been in the other direction, but at least that history is encouraging. Certainly, leaving it to the Saudis hasn't worked and letting the Iranians have their way would be a calamity (unless they get the political change the people of Iran so richly deserve). So ... the exploration of this axis may also be an area to watch with at least a soupcon of optimism.

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BRIC Economies -- Yes, China may have a trade deficit next year and the manufacturing numbers are down. Yes, Brazil is seeing growth flatline.  Yes, Turkey and India and other emerging markets are suffering similar fates. But, on the upside, inflation isn't really the threat it once was. The Chinese have been very good at managing to avoid hard landings so far, and the Brazilians have done well this year to engineer their way out of some real threats. The true test of the long-term promise of these big emerging economies comes not in how they perform when markets are up but in how they handle stress. And so far they're doing pretty well ... acting considerably more decisively and effectively, we might add, than their colleagues in old Europe, the United States, or Japan.

Iran’s Nuclear Program-- It looks like the Iranians are moving forward with the nuclear plans. But it also looks like the world has found ways to use good old-fashioned hard power alongside the soft to try and pressure them to stop -- without actually declaring war and dropping a Bush/Cheney-esque shock-and-awe extravaganza on them. And the application of soft power seems to be hitting the Iranian currency and economy with greater force every day. The Iranians seem to be inviting the international community back in for another inspection visit, and they may now realize that all these changes in the region may not be as good for them as they originally thought -- with the looming loss of an ally in Syria, the potential for democracy elsewhere to whet appetites among Iranians, and the emergence of new countervailing axes. Ahmadinejad may even be on thin ice with some of his bosses. Perhaps all of this won't lead them to accelerate the program, but rather to use it as a negotiating tool. (OK, please pass the spiked hot apple cider. Even I am having trouble believing myself at this point.)

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Iraq and Afghanistan -- Hmmm. Let's see. The future in both these places looks better because ... because ... well, it looks better because the United States is out of one and leaving the other. And the farther away we get, the less the chaos we leave behind will matter to us ... and, I suspect, the whole world. Bad for the people in country? Sure. Likely to be a constant source of worry for us? Quite possibly. But we're searching for shreds of optimism here and getting the heck out of these two messes is its own reward.

Pakistan -- (Humming a cheerful seasonal carol to myself while I think of an optimistic take on what might happen next in Pakistan.) Well, how's this: The nukes have thus far stayed safe and they may continue to do so. India and Pakistan have made some progress in the past year, including on a trade deal. The democratically elected government has managed to at least stay in power despite being constantly undermined by the military and the ISI. The world is paying attention and recognizes how important stability in Pakistan is. There are huge numbers of talented, hard-working Pakistanis who could build the country's economy if only there were a little more investment in areas like infrastructure. Pakistan may not go backwards. It may not collapse. It may not make mischief in Afghanistan and India. How's that for optimism?

Rise of India -- The world's largest democracy is facing economic challenges and a very public battle over government corruption at the moment. But it is also a vibrant, committed democracy. It is also (far too slowly) opening its economy in a two step forward, one and a half step backward fashion. It is playing a more engaged and constructive role as a leading global power. Indeed, its rise over the next several years is likely to be every bit as important geopolitically as China's, and the model it employs in that rise is likely to be much more palatable to the prevailing tastes within the world's most developed economies.

ate Geraghty/The Sydney Morning Herald/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Japan -- Right before Fukushima, Japan seemed poised to begin a slow recovery. Now, with the brunt of that shock behind it, the country seems to be stirring again. Watch for the big old capitalist economies of the early 1990s -- the United States and Japan -- to lead the world out of the current economic crisis (at least in my super-optimistic scenario, here).

Russian Democracy -- The term "Russian democracy" as envisioned by Vladimir Putin is an oxymoron. But following the most recent round of dubious elections, the people of Russia started challenging Putinism in the streets. It's early days and experts predict the protests won't amount to anything, but the crowds have been big and vocal and it is almost certain that the little karate-chopping oligarch-in-chief is not feeling quite so sure of himself as he has recently. And that may well be a sign that further changes could be coming in 2012.

Energy -- When we talk about "energy revolutions" in the press, we typically mean transformational technologies. But what is happening in the world is something different. We're seeing subtler moves toward what might be called "revolutionary outcomes." Massive new hydrocarbon finds are announced almost every day ... including transformational discoveries in and near the United States. New technologies are triggering a new era of enhanced efficiency and consumer empowerment. Coming up with lighter cars that use collision avoidance to eliminate the need for heavy steel and more efficient engines may result in gas-hybrid technologies that have dramatic impacts long before electric or hydrogen vehicles can get there. U.S. dependence on Mideast oil is falling. Domestic supplies and neighboring suppliers like Brazil are changing the balance. New demand will give other countries like China and India a greater stake in keeping the peace in the Middle East. Oil in Africa could help pay for growth. This too could all go wrong if we ignore issues like climate as we have ... but for now, there is much that is both good and surprising happening in the world economy's largest sector.

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Global Security -- Big wars seem unlikely. Big powers are turning their attention to growing their own economies. International laws and mechanisms are weak but working better. There's no reason to expect the 21st Century to be more of a bloody mess than the one that came before was.

Quality of Life -- As mentioned at the top, with a few sad exceptions aside, people are living longer, healthier, and more prosperous lives. Educational, cultural, and political tools are much more ubiquitous thanks to the rapid spread of information technologies. The poorest have cell phones, and more and more cell phones are tiny computers. There has never been a better moment to be alive on the planet than now ... and all indications are that things will only get better (especially if we live through an era of bio, neuro and nanoscience-driven medical breakthroughs, as is predicted for the decades ahead ... and if we get our arms around climate issues, for which, at the very least, hope was kept alive in Durban).

The Media -- To Newt Gingrich, the media are a scourge. But we are living in a golden age of new ways to deliver information, of ways to make it interactive, of empowering citizen-reporters and citizen-whistleblowers everywhere. We get live, real-time news that offers a wider range of choices, from the truly global to the ultra local, in whatever format the viewer wants. New business models are starting to save newspapers and other formerly "print" media. Electorates can hardly help but be more informed. Average people can hardly help but be more aware or entertained.

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Activism -- I went to college in the 1970s just hoping that our time to seize campus buildings and face off with riot police was around the corner. I wanted revolution like they had in the 1960s (or 1840s). Instead, I got Reaganism and Bret Easton Ellis (shoot me, now). But in 2011, from Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park, we had activism, demonstrations, placards, chants, and courageous people who were fed up with a corrupt system and wanted change. What's more, in many places it worked and in others it is still changing the conversation. Politics doesn't just happen in the voting booth. It has to happen constantly and, sometimes, it has to cry out for attention when the system seems to have been hardened against change and designed to serve only elites. With some luck 2011 is only the beginning ... because there is a lot of work left to be done.

Mexico -- The drug cartels are threatening the country's hard-won gains of the past several decades. But an election is coming ... and the Mexican people have already (if briefly) flexed their muscles, seeming to suggest they actually want a candidate who has read a book or two. The United States and the Obama Administration want to help, recognizing Mexico's stability is a top foreign-policy concern for the country. A bit of U.S. recovery will help ... and Mexico is not just the states in which the cartels are running rampant. There is a lot of promising growth in the market for those who are willing to look for it.

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U.S.-Cuba -- I once called the Cuban embargo the Edsel of U.S. foreign policy. That was unfair both to the Edsel (the policy has been a much bigger failure) and to the Cuban embargo (it has survived as a disaster much longer than did the Edsel). But sooner or later this ridiculous policy will end and, given the age of all those who even remember its origins, my money is on sooner. Whether they die before their ideas do is moot at this point. The end is near.

Venezuela -- It is just a matter of time on this front as well. And while every year is a good one because it brings us closer to Hugo Chavez's departure, 2011 seemed to hasten the exit even more than might have been hoped.

The U.S. Congress -- OK, I came up with 24. Cut me a little slack. I have nothing good to say about these guys. Anyone who votes for an incumbent in 2012 hates America.

So there you go. Never let it be said I am not a one-man Festival of Lights.

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Obama Should Apologize

The facts are in: NATO forces mistakenly killed Pakistani soldiers. It’s time to swallow American pride and say we’re sorry.

ISLAMABAD – In the wee hours of Nov. 27, U.S.-NATO and Afghan forces based in Afghanistan's Kunar province engaged a Pakistani military outpost in Pakistan's tribal agency of Momand. Little information is publically available -- or likely to be -- about what happened or how. What is clear is that after several NATO airstrikes, 24 Pakistani soldiers were dead and many more injured. The episode, and the U.S. response, battered the ever-strained U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Pakistan immediately cut off ground routes for logistical support of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, and insisted that the United States vacate Shamsi, one of the airfields from which the U.S. launched drone attacks.

In quick succession, Pakistan convened a parliamentary commission to determine whether and how Pakistan will remain engaged with the United States. Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs recalled all of its ambassadors to hold a high-level strategic discussion about how Pakistan should refashion its relations with the United States. Their recommendations will be considered by the same parliamentary commission. Pakistanis, whether civilian or military, whether in the government or on the street, want out of this relationship and deeply believe that Americans do not value Pakistani lives. They may not be wrong.

Pakistani military officials quickly denounced the attack as deliberate, unprovoked U.S. aggression and demanded both an immediate apology and a renegotiation of military and intelligence cooperation. That Pakistani officials made such pronouncements in the complete absence of information about the attack cast aspersions on their motives. The move appeared to be another effort to wriggle free fromWashington's poisonous embrace, abandon military operations against anti-Pakistan militants, and pursue an independent Afghan policy.

While rejecting the Pakistani military's account, NATO and U.S. officials declined to officially speculate about the details of the event -- much less offer an apology -- until a full investigation was complete. The investigation is now complete. The report has been issued, and the Pentagon released a statement on Thursday saying only that "U.S. forces, given what information they had available to them at the time, acted in self defense and with appropriate force after being fired upon." There was, the statement said, "no intentional effort to target persons or places known to be part of the Pakistani military, or to deliberately provide inaccurate location information to Pakistani officials." Instead, "inadequate coordination by U.S. and Pakistani military officers... resulted in a misunderstanding about the true location of Pakistani military units." The statement expressed regret, but neither President Barack Obama nor Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has issued a forthright apology. Unfortunately, neither is likely to do so given the toxic atmosphere in Washington and the looming presidential campaign.

The U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, urged Obama to apologize, but he was quickly cut down. Munter has sought to mitigate Pakistanis' anger by saying in Urdu "humay bahut afsos hai" ("We are very sorry"). On Monday, he joined several interfaith leaders in offering a prayer at Islamabad's Faisal Mosque for the Pakistani soldiers killed on Nov. 27, offering, "We share in this grief, and we share in this sorrow." The author's contacts here in Islamabad and in Washington lament that instead of heeding the sagacious advice of the ambassador, who understands the raw sentiments of Pakistanis, some within the U.S. government dismiss Munter as "having gone native."

While the Pentagon report apportions blame to both sides, an astute reader can only conclude that the most heinous mistakes were not made by Pakistan. The report claims that NATO and Afghan troops came under fire from Pakistani positions. (Official Pakistani sources refute this.) Believing they were under attack by insurgents, the NATO and Afghan troops called for suppressive air fire. The report concedes that, contrary to established standard operating procedures, NATO did not inform Pakistan that the operation on the border was taking place. This supports early U.S. claims that NATO-Afghan forces came under fire. After all, how could the Pakistani soldiers know that the forces moving near their area of operations were "allied forces"? (Americans dismiss this and say Pakistan should have known better. After all, the insurgents do not have helicopter gunships.) While one can get caught up in the details of who fired first and why, NATO's failure to follow established procedures is indefensible.

But this is not the most egregious mistake. The worst -- and fatal error -- was the fact that the Americans provided the Pakistani army with incorrect coordinates for the designated targets of AC-130 gunships and attack helicopters. In the early days of the incident, there were several claims and counterclaims about whether the coordinates were given, whether they were correct, and whether the Pakistan army had cleared the coordinates before the attack. However, the report makes evident that Pakistan's clearance of the coordinates or lack thereof is immaterial: The strikes would still have killed those innocent soldiers because the coordinates were simply wrong.

The details of the report, and its efforts to apportion blame across all sides, will not satisfy Pakistanis, who feel they have suffered too much and received too little from this partnership over the last 10 years. They want nothing more than an apology from Obama. Despite the report's tedious efforts to parse culpability, it is obvious that most of the onus falls on the United States and NATO. So why does the United States steadfastly refuse to do the right thing and issue a clear apology to Pakistan and its citizenry in and out of uniform?

Like Pakistanis, American officials and citizens alike are war weary and angry. As the endgame in Afghanistan approaches, Americans are now -- or should be -- confronting the vacuity of our Afghan policy. Vice President Joe Biden, who has taken a lot of heat for saying, "the Taliban, per se, is not our enemy," was right: We invaded Afghanistan to destroy al Qaeda. The Taliban were not the immediate objects of our intervention. (For this reason, Biden advocated for a robust counterterrorism strategy and advised against a counterinsurgency policy that implied a war on the Taliban and affiliated fighters rather than on al Qaeda.) Once the United States decided to make the Taliban the enemy -- for the simple reason that the Taliban and affiliated fighters are killing American and allied troops whom they see as occupying Afghanistan -- it also made Pakistan an enemy as well.

For much of the last decade, the Pakistanis have supported the insurgents that are killing U.S. and allied troops and civilians, even while benefiting from American assistance and military reimbursements for assisting the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Just as Pakistanis are deeply aggrieved that U.S. forces killed 24 of their soldiers, Americans are increasingly outraged that thousands of troops have been killed or maimed in Afghanistan at the hands of Pakistan's proxies. Many have died or suffered injuries from IEDs manufactured with products made in Pakistan. Pakistan has made little effort to denature or add tracers to ammonium nitrate used in such IEDs and claims it is impossible to stop the "smuggling." There is also copious evidence that Pakistan's spy service actively facilitates the insurgents. The two countries are fighting a peculiar proxy war, and the United States and its citizenry are only now appreciating the reality of this grotesque situation.

American anger over this duplicity is justified. Pakistan's ruling generals have taken U.S. funds with one hand and funneled them to their murderous proxies in Afghanistan with the other. But who got us into this situation? Ultimately it is the fault of the U.S. government, which chose to wage a war that was not winnable, whether with the allies it has or the allies it could cultivate. Pakistan is the only viable logistical route for the war in Afghanistan. How could the United States think it could defeat Pakistan's proxies in Afghanistan while depending on Pakistan to fight that very war? It is a maddening fact to any realist that while Washington found a way to funnel $20 billion (and climbing) into Pakistan despite its history of supporting terrorism and nuclear proliferation, it could never find a way to move logistics through Iran's deep sea port in Chabahar, even though Iran initially supported the war in Afghanistan. Washington grimaces at the suggestion of working with Afghanistan's western neighbor even though Tehran's record on both terrorism and nuclear proliferation is but a shadow of Pakistan's.

And the absurdity doesn't stop there. In the most twisted of realities, some of Pakistan's most anti-American trucking barons have enriched themselves by facilitating the logistical supply for the war with the hope of keeping the Americans in the Afghan killing fields as long as possible. After all, any dedicated insurgent seeking to end the war would have had better luck blowing up trucks piled up at either the Chaman or Torkham border crossings. Yet loss due to pilferage or destruction never exceeded 5 percent all of cargo. Why? Thanks to the Pashtun trucking mafia, the various Taliban organizations and petty officials along the routes make a killing from U.S. military's logistical needs. Five percent (or less) is an optimal level of loss that keeps everyone rolling in cash.

But neither the United States nor Pakistan will benefit from a continued and escalating standoff. America needs Pakistan to conclude its Afghanistan misadventure. This requires Pakistan both to stop encouraging its militant proxies' violent endeavors and to productively assert its influence to achieve a negotiated settlement that is palatable to most in the country. Washington also wants to keep an eye on Islamabad's quickly expanding nuclear arsenal and terrorist assets such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba -- the group that carried out the Mumbai attacks -- and other international menaces. Finally, the United States wants Pakistan somehow to be at peace with itself and its neighbors.

As for Pakistan, it's an economic disaster case. Pakistanis have long endured incomprehensible electricity outages. Now, they lack inadequate gas to cook or heat their homes. Public transportation has been strangled by shortages in compressed natural gas. Water is in acute scarcity. Pakistan's manufacturing sector is struggling to remain competitive under these adverse conditions. Although Pakistan has told the IMF to take a hike, most informed Pakistanis concede that it will again have to approach the IMF sooner rather than later. As Pakistan knows well, the United States is a key actor in that institution. In short, Pakistan and the United States must forge a sustainable way of working together because the strategic and regional interests of both depend on it.

The United States must swiftly act to rectify this mess first by apologizing. Second, the U.S. military must hold to account those officers who are responsible for this tragedy. Not only should the appropriate personnel be demoted or ousted per the severity of their negligence, but prosecution may also be merited.

Americans will howl in protest, noting years of Pakistani perfidy. They may rightly counter that no senior Pakistani military or intelligence officials lost their jobs when Osama bin Laden was found hanging out in Abbottabad, a military garrison town not far from Islamabad. Nor did any general's head roll when "rogue" scientist A.Q. Khan was caught in various nuclear bartering imbroglios; no Pakistani general that has overthrown a government has been charged with treason despite the fact that Pakistan's constitution calls for such punishment. But the United States is not Pakistan. The United States claims to promote democracy, accountability, justice, law and order, and human rights. Now is the time to prove it. Pakistanis need to know that their lives matter as much as those of others.