Weekly Commentary — Uncomprehending Sanctimony and the War on Terror
I’m beginning to think maybe Condoleezza Rice wasn’t such a bad secretary of state. Those who thought that the Bush administration had a monopoly on uncomprehending sanctimony, meaningless and condescending expressions of concern, and blaming others for one’s own faults in foreign relations need only look at what the media has been labeling Hillary Clinton’s recent “charm offensive;” well, the term is half right.
She hectors Pakistanis about the prevalence of poverty and the lack of development. How does a country that consistently ranks in the bottom 20% of rich nations in foreign aid as a percentage of GDP have the face to talk about development? How much more so in Pakistan, whose pattern of massive inequality, feudal social relations, corruption, and autocracy owes so much to consistent reflexive U.S. support for a string of military dictatorships going back almost to the beginning of the Cold War?
Even worse, she hectors Pakistanis about their lack of enthusiasm for America’s war. In a meeting with newspaper editors, she said, “Al-Qaida has had safe haven in Pakistan since 2002…I find it hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are and couldn’t get them if they really wanted to.” Remarkably, she made these comments while admitting that she doesn’t really know what the situation is. She then followed this up while talking to students at Government College University in Lahore by extending the accusation to the entire population of Pakistan; why exactly a poor peasant in the tribal areas would want to become a footsoldier in her war is apparently not something she considers worth thinking about.
Although the English-language Pakistani press at least treated her with restraint, it’s hard to imagine too many Pakistanis who didn’t feel the insult. After all, the war in Pakistan, which has claimed several thousands lives, is entirely the fallout from America’s war in Afghanistan. In 2001, militant groups in Pakistan concentrated their actions on Kashmir, and Islamist parties were as significant in elections as the Green Party in the United States. All of that changed when the United States decided first to prosecute the war, and then to let everyone they were pursuing cross the border into Pakistan while they hared off to Iraq.
Those who wish to justify this by saying that it was Pakistan’s policies, like support of the Taliban, that led to 9/11 are simply cutting the timeline at an arbitrary but convenient point. Draw it further back to U.S. support for the virulent dictatorship of Ziaul Haq and its callous support of the Afghan mujaheddin purely for the purpose of bleeding the Soviet Union, with no concern for the effects on Afghanistan and the region, and the point stands.
The same American incomprehension that anyone else could have valid concerns shines through most clearly in an exchange Clinton had with a woman who condemned the CIA drone strikes as extrajudicial executions and then asked whether they did not constitute terrorism just as surely as the car bombings that have taken such a big toll on Pakistan lately. Apparently, Clinton was as well-prepared to answer that as Madeleine Albright was to answer Lesley Stahl’s question about the deaths of Iraqi children due to the sanctions, and presumably for the same reason — such things are not allowed to trouble the beautiful minds of imperial elite when making their imperial dispositions.
The pace of drone strikes has considerably increased under Obama; in the past 10 months, there have been already 30% more than last year. According to a recent study by Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann of the New America Foundation, since 2006 drone strikes have killed 750 to 1000 people, of whom they estimate two-thirds were militants and one-third civilians. An initial tally by Pakistani journalist Amir Mir estimated much higher civilian casualties, but his method seemed to be to assume that anyone who was not a named “high-value target” was a civilian. Of those deaths, half of them have come in 2009.
Had Clinton been better prepared, she would have known the conventional U.S. answer — civilians killed in drone bombings are “collateral damage;” the U.S. is attacking valid military targets. Of course, the same could be said of many of the suicide car bombings carried out by the Tehrik-i-Taliban.
The latest Pakistani offensive in South Waziristan has created 250,000 refugees and set off a series of retaliatory bombings in Peshawar, Rawalpindi, Karachi, Lahore, and across the country that have killed over 300 people. Just from the timing of recent suicide bombings, it’s clear that they are happening because of Pakistani military offensives; most of them would likely not happen otherwise.
Unlike George Bush, Barack Obama is capable of understanding these things if he wants to. He just seems to perceive little need to do so.