COMMENTARY
 
Why Obama’s victory is important for Pakistan
Weekly Pullse
November 7-13, 2008
Barack Obama’s election as President of the United States is as much significant for the American people as it is for the people in Pakistan, a country so closely aligned with the United States in the War on Terror. Perhaps that is why we have seen an unprecedented public interest in US election campaign and its outcome, as clear from round-the-clock coverage of elections on our cable news channels.

The re-capture of American power by the Democratic Party under the charismatic leadership of a first-time African American President-elect is a revolutionary event in American history. Therefore, there is no reason why this will not have an equally radical impact on US domestic and foreign policy. This US policy shift will also be visible in areas of US foreign policy relevant to Pakistan such as the war in Afghanistan and the nature of politics in Pakistan.

However, before assessing what Obama’s victory means for us, it is important to address question such as a) what the resurgence of Democratic Party in US politics and foreign policy, after eight years of George Bush’s neo-conservative Republication rule, implies for the world; b) why the outcome of US elections is important for world; and c) how significant the election of an African American as President of the world’s most powerful country is.

Momentous Event

Obama’s victory is beyond any doubt a revolutionary development in American history, which saw a civil war on the issue of slavery in mid-19th century and where black or African American population got their due civil rights as recently as the late 1960s.

Race has always been a major issue in US history, and race-related prejudices did affect the electoral race for US presidency this time as well. In Obama’s case, there was an additional religious factor—that of his middle initial H for Hussain—which his conservative opponents did also try to exploit. However, in the end, neither race nor religion could not break the momentum for real change in US internal reality and external conduct Obama’s election campaign had built so consistently.

As elsewhere in the world, the US elections received usually large and extensive coverage in Pakistan’s vibrant electronic and print media. This may appear strange, given the sort of anti-Americanism that we see in our own society, in the Muslim world in particular, and even in traditionally pro-US Europe. If people across the world hate America, why are they so much interested in the outcome of US elections?

The answer to this question is not that difficult. For America is a world unto itself. It is much more that a country, a place which has been founded by immigrants and in whose prosperity since independence and before immigrants have played an important role. There is no other country that shares with America this unique characteristic.

There are Pakistani-Americans, Arab-Americans, South Asian-Americans, and they constitute quite a significant number of the immigrant population that came to this land of enormous opportunity after the new, relatively liberal US Immigration and Naturalization Service Act came into operation in the 1960s.

Global Interest

Since what happens domestically in the United States affects each and every class of immigrants, there is no escape from the corresponding interest that is generated in internal US situation in countries from where these immigrants originally came. In the post-9/11 era, for instance, Muslim countries in the Middle East and South Asia, particularly Pakistan, cannot walk away from an American reality whereby Muslim immigrants are perceived to be on the receiving end of a host of legal and security steps adopted domestically by the Bush Administration in order to prevent terrorism.

There are additional reasons why the rest of the world cannot escape from not taking interest in what happens politically inside the United States. No other power matches the hard power—military, financial, educational, and so on—of the United States. If control over cyber space is a major determinant of international power in the 21st century, then America has achieved this control, not through any official effort but by harnessing the individualistic, creative abilities of its people. The recent global financial crisis is a fine example of the scale of US influence in global politics or the global dependence on the US, as the entire global crisis was kick-started by a crisis first in the US economy.

For all of such and related reasons who wins and who loses in US elections is extremely significant for the world, especially for a country like Pakistan which is so closely aligned with the United States at present.

Wrong Perception

There is a perception in Pakistan that somehow a Republican Party rule has been good for the country and that Democratic US regimes have always been pro-India. Yes it is true that somehow the strategic significance of the region we are situated in increased on the eve of Republican rules in the United States. Take the case of the Reagan Administration and the current Bush Administration. Each time, we became close allies because of the two wars in Afghanistan, first caused by the 1979 Soviet invasion and the 2001 terrorist acts in the United States and the consequent War on Terror in Afghanistan.

However, it is also true that in each case the Republican leadership dealt with a military rule in Pakistan, led by General Ziaul Haq in the 1980s and General Pervez Musharraf in the post-9/11 era. Its aid-driven proactive diplomacy indirectly contributed to the scuttling of democracy in Pakistan. So, what we usually perceive to have been good for the country has actually not been so good.

There is no denying the fact that Clinton Administration undertook a drastic policy shift towards South Asia by treating Pakistan and India separately, in accordance with the relative importance for each. Since India’s importance for the United States has continued to increase in the post-Cold War period, we have seen an endless trend of US tilt towards India in the past nearly two decades. US tilt towards India has emerged as a constant in US foreign policy. Even John McCain’s victory would not have changed this constant.

Should we then perceive the Obama Administration to be as indifferent to Pakistan’s interests as Clinton Administration is perceived to have been? Not necessarily! Because then, in the early 1990s, Pakistan’s strategic value for the United States had declined in the aftermath of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan.

Key Implication

The case is altogether opposite this time. The threat from al-Qaeda-inspired and Taliban-led terrorism has increased in Afghanistan, where tens of thousands of US, NATO and Afghan troops are engaged in the war. The same threat has also risen in Pakistan’s tribal areas, where tens of thousands of Pakistani troops are fighting a similar war.

The War on Terror being waged on both sides of the Durand Line creates a commonality of strategic interests between the United States and Pakistan, which will prevent a Democratic US leader to turn away from Pakistan just as the Democratic leader did in the 1990s.

Thus, for both strategic reasons and domestic political reasons, the victory of Obama in US elections will have positive implications for Pakistan. If reversing Taliban-led militarism is in Pakistan’s strategic interest, and if democracy is the best answer to our volatile political, economic and social problems, then any radical leadership change in the United States—a great power with which we are closely affiliated now—and the possibility of an equally radical consequential shift in US global priorities should be a good news for us.

Pakistan has already seen a democratic shift early this year. Since the Republicans always strengthened the hands of undemocratic forces in the country, John McCain’s victory might have meant a relatively short life for the present democratic regime with a possibility of a military coup along the road. Such a possibility may not be there anymore, at least as long as the Democrats rule the United States.

Liberal Creed

This is because the Democratic Party represents a liberal creed in US politics. At home, this party stands for more civil liberties, such as the right to abortion, legalizing illegal immigrants, habeas corpus right to detainees of Guantanamo Bay. Likewise, in the world, the Democrats stand for greater freedom and democracy, pursue multilateralism instead of unilateralism and, therefore, they tend to take America out of wars.

Obama may have made a couple of hawkish statements such as his oft-cited declaration to attack Pakistani tribal areas without asking Pakistani authorities. For one, his statement to this effect was quoted out of context, because there were a couple of ‘ifs’ attached to it, such as the presence of bin Laden and the unwillingness of Pakistani authorities to cooperate with the United States.

During the election campaign, a presidential candidate has to satisfy a lot of vested interests for the sake of campaign funding, and, therefore, the issuing of a hawkish statement such as the above does not mean that the same option will be exercised when Obama becomes President. Even otherwise, across-border US strikes are already happening and who should it be such an important issue linked to the future Obama Administration?

What we need to understand is that a US Democratic leadership will always be guided by the liberal creed of the party in domestic and foreign affairs. Obama will attempt to take the US out of wars in Iraq and even in Afghanistan.

Just as the Pakistani civilian government has put dialogue with those among the Taliban willing to surrender arms, an American Democratic Administration will also give more importance to solving conflicts preferably through non-military means—a great departure from the use-of-force based neo-conservative legacy of the Bush Administration.

Obama has already stated that aid to Pakistan during his tenure will be meant for people, including their economic well-being and educational development, rather than for military purposes. He has also expressed his desire to play a constructive role in solving the Kashmir dispute, without which, in his perception, peace in South Asia will never be realized.

How can an American leader who pursues multilateralism in world affairs, supports democratic regimes in the developing world and links US aid to people’s welfare in recipient states be bad for Pakistan? This is exactly the kind of the United States that we are going to see under Obama’s Presidency. And this should certainly be a cause for celebration.

Access column at weeklypulse.org