No Good Options for Interventionists


There’s a little Pakistani restaurant in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia — I want to say it’s on Al Makaroumah Street, but I’m probably wrong and I don’t remember which north-south drag it’s located on — where I’m told Pakistani presidents and prime ministers arrive soon after taking power and get the formal seal of approval for their governments from the rulers of Saudi Arabia.

"That is where Pakistani governments are made and unmade," an acquaintance told me as we drove by, pointing to a two-story white building close to a major intersection.

I don’t know if that restaurant, with its impressive biryani and kabob take-out menu and its second-floor banquet hall, really was such an important place or not. I never saw Nawaz Sharif there eating chicken tikka and drinking tea while chatting with advisors and waiting for Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Feisal to show up and give him his marching orders, nor did I ever see President (ne general) Parvez Musharraf glancing over the entrees wondering what would best feed his entourage during that all-important meeting with the Saudi crown prince. So who knows if that little restaurant was indeed where Pakistani governments were "made and unmade." When you’re a journalist, lots of people (including other journalists) tell you lots of things. Some of them are even true.

Saudi Arabia has long wielded influence in how Pakistan is ruled. The countries have very close commercial and trade ties, millions of Pakistanis live and work in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (and elsewhere in the Arabian Gulf), and the Saudi government (along with those of several other Gulf states) probably provided significant funding to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. I do not know whether Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Pakistani government is appreciated by a majority of Pakistanis — I suspect not. Nor can Saudi intervention in Pakistan be considered a huge success; Nawaz Sharif’s lengthy exile in the Kingdom following his failed attempt to fire Musharraf was a sign of that.

But at least Saudi Arabia keeps its intervention quiet. No boots on the ground, no grand wars of liberation, no press conferences or speeches planning an end to evil and tyranny as the world knows it. The Saudis prefer quiet, almost stealthily silent, diplomacy. They prefer the power of the purse to the terror of the cluster bomb. And they also know when a situation is veering out of control — their control — and how to cut their losses and make deals with whoever they need to make deals with. After all, regardless of who governs Pakistan, all those Pakistani expatriates will still be working and living in Saudi Arabia, sending their remittances back home while Saudi and Pakistani businessmen take the red-eye between Karachi and Dhahran to make sure the air-conditioner factory is running up to speed or the auto dealership is still profitable.

The Saudis have never lived with the illusion that they can, through the exercise of sheer brute power, stamp their view upon the world. I’m trying to remember the last time the Royal Saudi Air Force bombed a foreign country (1991?). The Saudis have flooded the world with mass-produced Islamic literature, much of it of questionable intellectual quality, but no one is forced to read any of it. (And most alternatives, like the stuff that comes out of Pakistan, is even worse.) The ideology of the Islamic revolutionaries of al Qaeda (and its franchisees and affiliates) is not Wahhabism — though it has been influenced by interpretations if Ibn Wahhab — but is rather a complex stew that owes as much to Egyptian ideas of the last century, the praxis of the Afghan mujahedin, and the preaching and writings of many Pashtu preachers and thinkers.

Americans, on the other hand, do live with the illusion that they can, through brute force, bend the world to their will. Or at least many — possibly most — American policy makers do. Why else would so many well-educated and allegedly "smart" (Washington is full of some of the best-educated dumb people that have ever governed a major power at any time in world history) people have vested so much hope and trust in one flawed and finite human being — Benazir Bhutto — to solve, or at least attempt to solve, the problems of Pakistan.

There are no good options for American interventionists in Pakistan. Democracy, whatever that may mean in the context of Pakistan (either to Pakistani elites, or Pakistani voters, or American elites), was not and will never be a cure to the country’s ills. There is no unified Pakistani "people" to have a unified "will" that could be reflected in a government. There may be a plurality of voters, but pluralities cannot effectively rule in the face of resistance or opposition. The fact that the 1990s were a time of musical prime ministerships between Bhutto and Sharif tells something about the nature of Pakistani politics. Had she survived to become prime minister in January, I suspect Bhutto — who David Ignatius on Friday called "Pakistani political royalty" — would have eventually (and maybe quickly) disappointed just about everyone, including her greatest Western fans, who seemed to expect something of a miracle from her akin to changing water into wine.

Bhutto’s corruption, overlooked by Western fans who could only see some kind of colored freedom revolution in her movement, got her ousted. Their sentimental attachment to Bhutto failed to see that their desires for Pakistan were not the same as those of the Pakistanis themselves (a common failing of U.S. elites who become far too attached to charismatic leaders from elsewhere). And those connections to the West, especially the United States, are al Qaeda’s stated reason for killing Bhutto:

"We terminated the most precious American asset which vowed to defeat [the] mujahadeen," Al-Qaeda’s commander and main spokesperson Mustafa Abu Al-Yazid told Adnkronos International (AKI) in a phone call from an unknown location, speaking in faltering English. Al-Yazid is the main al-Qaeda commander in Afghanistan.

If trying to influence Pakistani politics hasn’t worked well for Washington for the last 30 years, invading the country, or even dispatching the U.S. military to fight the Islamists directly, would be exponentially worse. This assumes there are adequate soldiers for any kind of operation (above bombing raids or commando strikes). In Iraq, 180,000 U.S. soldiers have only just barely secured a country of 25 million people, and then only with the tacit assent of former combatants who, for the time being, are kind-of cooperative sometimes. Pakistan is home to nearly 170 million people, many of whom would not be glad to see us and could easily make life difficult for any occupation army or even contingent of advisors. If the U.S. invaded and occupied Pakistan, it would need more than 1.2 million men (and women) under arms and in the country in order to match the troop levels currently deployed in Iraq (and we know how successful that has been). Air strikes and commando raids might be sustainable (and deniable), but these aren’t the kinds of things that make friends, or have much long-term positive effect in whatever war the United States government seems to be fighting.

Not that any of this has stopped presidential candidates, Republicans and Democrats, from suggesting that "something" needs to be done about Pakistan — including military action. (Madame Hillary is even calling for an "international investigation" into Bhutto’s assassination, no doubt to be followed up by a month-long air war against Pakistan later in 2008.) That no one, not even Benito, is proposing a draft to increase the size of the U.S. military to a healthy percentage of that needed 1.2 million, is a good sign that sanity, or at least something resembling good sense, prevails somewhere. Big dreams of empire may be uplifting for those yearning release from the tedium of the simple life (of family and work and neighborhood), but Washington’s sheer lack of resources, and the unwillingness to do anything about that lack aside from borrow from China, may actually and finally constrain those imperial dreams.

And this is good news for non-interventionists in the U.S. Because there is little Washington can do, no good options, no great white hope, it is important for us to say "then do nothing!", to say it loudly and constantly, to repeat it over and over again when the subject of Pakistan (or any other possible foreign intervention) comes up. Let Pakistanis solve their own problems. The Islamists do not want power (outside the Northwest Frontier Province, they won’t get it), they only want as many U.S. troops on the ground so they have something to fight and rally support around. Let’s not give them that. Instead, let’s continue to trade with Pakistan (Jennifer and I have a cupboard full of Pakistani basmati rice, the best in the world), make friends and acquaintances and do business with Pakistanis. Even if their government is corrupt and inefficient, Pakistanis must be doing something right if the shops of Azizeyyah in Jeddah and Devon Ave. here in Chicago are full of Pakistani foods, textiles, music CDs, simple manufactured goods and even books.

So let’s not worry how Pakistanis are governed or whether we can feel good about their current leader because she speaks unaccented English, attended an Ivy League university, sounds progressive and promises that "our" interests and the alleged interests of her alleged people are the same.

There will be those who say that if the United States government does nothing, if it doesn’t deal with them over there, by fighting them and helping arrange good government, then Americans will eventually fight them right here at home. But where’s the evidence for this assertion? In fact, the United States has been fighting "them" in various places "over there" for more than a century now, been arranging "good governance" hither and yon for much of that time, and all it has led to is more "them" to fight in some new and different place "over there." Because when one meddles, when one insists upon doing something rather than doing nothing, there is always another "them" to fight. And always another "over there."

Doing nothing also hardly sounds kind. It doesn’t seem to follow the golden rule of loving your neighbor as yourself. If Americans can do something to protect themselves and at the same time help Pakistanis, well, it seems cruel and illiberal not to help them. Yet what is kind about intervening in the way other people do business, about the intolerant presupposition of their overwhelming need and our ability to satisfy that need, about that kind of condescending assumption of incompetence? Suppose some overweening group of do-gooder Muslims, convinced that our society is so damaged by poverty and violence, so disrupted by incompetent governance, decided we need the kind of help only their support and management of our elections, our media and our economy could bring. Or what if they decided we needed to be bombed because our nation is a source of so much of the world’s instability and violence, and because force appears to be the only thing we understand. Would we be angry? So who are we to expect that those we treat as children in need of our good but stern guidance should not, at least some of them, be angry at us for this? We would want to be left alone to sort our own problems out. Indeed, we would insist upon it. We owe everyone else in the world the same.

I do not know if "doing nothing" is Ron Paul’s policy option for Pakistan, but it ought to be. No aid, military or otherwise, to buy the cooperation of an otherwise sullen government, no lectures, no cajoling, no pleading. Honest cooperation against al Qaeda if it is offered, knowing that absent the congressional aid package (and more than six years of stupidity from Washington), it may not be. Let the Saudis deal with Pakistan if that is their wish, and let them have the headache of meddling and of cleaning up the inevitable messes.

At least they know where to get such affairs catered.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a seminarian and freelance editor living in Chicago. Visit his blog.